The House of Refuge on Gilbert’s Bar is the oldest structure in Martin County. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it is also a community icon and true treasure of Florida’s Treasure Coast.
The House of Refuge is the only one of the original ten houses of refuge to remain on the Florida Coast.
The history of the House of Refuge dates to 1876, when the U.S. Life-Saving Service, under the direction of Sumner Kimball, constructed ten “houses of refuge,” or life-saving stations, along Florida’s Atlantic Coast. These houses were staffed by “keepers,” who, with their families, led solitary lives in order to find, rescue, and minister to those who fell victim to Florida’s treacherous reefs and shoals. Prior to construction of these houses, many shipwreck victims made it to the isolated shore and then perished of starvation and thirst. As part of their duties, the keeper and his family walked along the shores as far as possible in search of shipwreck victims.
In 1915 the U.S. Life-Saving Service merged with the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service to form the U.S. Coast Guard, and then the House of Refuge became U.S. Coast Guard Station #207. The keeper at the time, Axel Johansen, and his wife, Kate, remained on duty, but Alex’s title was changed from Keeper to Surfman #1. Four other men were stationed at the house, and during World War I this crew of five was augmented by the Home Guard, composed of area youths.
In 1942, when German U-Boats torpedoed freighters along the Treasure Coast, a lookout tower and additional buildings were constructed on the property. In 1945 the U.S. government decommissioned House of Refuge operations, and the house sat empty until 1953, when Martin County purchased it and its 16-acre grounds for $168. In 1955 the Martin County Historical Society was formed to protect the house and present it as a museum.
Almost immediately, in addition to serving as a museum, the House of Refuge became a refuge for sea turtles, with this program being under the direction of Ross Witham (1917–2004), Marine Turtle Coordinator for the Florida Department of Natural Resources from 1963 to 1987. Now sea turtles, rather than shipwreck victims, depend on the life-saving measures of the House of Refuge.
Today the House of Refuge is itself a survivor; it is the only one of the original ten houses of refuge to remain on the Florida Coast. Today it tells the story of the region’s significant maritime heritage and the Floridians who endured hardships for the sake of humanitarian service.
Managed by the Elliott Museum and located at 301 Southeast MacArthur Boulevard on Hutchinson Island, The House of Refuge is open for guided tours from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from 1 until 4 p.m. on Sunday. The property may be rented for private events and provides a stunning location for small outdoor wedding ceremonies and receptions; for more information, the number to call is 772-225-1875.