Its is SUMMER TIME and this is the main tourist season for PANAMA CITY BEACH, the beach center for the so-called “Redneck Riviera.” I first saw PCB as a student at Florida State University and I was amazed at the pure white sand and the friendliness of everyone in the hotels and restaurants. The beach was not just oriented to bikers and college students, it is packed with families in the summer and the town has enormous amusement parks and activities to attract everyone. And despite the virus, the beach has its crowds, many now condo renters.
Yet it too me thirty years to realize that Panama City Beach is NOT Panama City, the place where most full-time residents live and where people live normal lives. Many of the servicemen of nearby Tyndall Air Force Base come back to live or retire here. The town has enough all-year action to satisfy most while Panama City (not the beach) has small town charms.
Most visitors who vacation on Panama City Beach, barely visit the real city of Panama City. Compared to its glamorous beachside little sister Panama City Beach, the town of Panama City is a large bayside residential community serving Tyndall Air Force Base to the east and the booming beach and bay suburbs to the west side. Panama City is the largest town between Pensacola and Tallahassee and, if you are staying in the area, worth a drive into the downtown area. Large buildings and fancy condos are not part of downtown Panama City which has a small town laid-back appearance and an almost empty-looking waterfront except for the large marinas.
TOURING PANAMA CITY by automobile is usually easy for there are lots of parking spaces along the main drag of Harrison Avenue and at key public buildings. To reach downtown from the hotel strip of Panama City, drive east over Hathaway Bridge, continue east on US 98 (W 15th Street) and turn right (south) on Harrison. Use the map once you get to the marina at the end of Harrison to decide what to do – you have already driven past the downtown shops.
The town obtained its name in 1900 when developer George West discovered his bayside site was about halfway between his native Chicago and Panama City, Panama. He was never thinking the beach would dominate the potential farming and lumbering in the region. HERE ARE SOME OF THE SIGHTS TO LOCATE:
PANAMA CITY HALL at 9 Harrison has parking if there is lunch time traffic in the downtown area. Across the way is the large PANAMA CITY CIVIC CENTER which hosts most of the big attraction events in the region.
JOSEPH DYER BUILDING at 13 Harrison next to Harrison House Furniture is a non-descript 1910 white building brought to the site from Sandy Creek by boat to become the first brick structure in the town. At 39 Harrison is the ELLIS & COLEMAN BUILDING, redesigned in 1933 to become the Bay Theater.
Across the street in the next block at 100 Harrison is the two-story 1911 WILKERSON BUILDING, used as the first town bank, a post office and the town telephone company. Opposite it at 101 Harrison is 1915 terra cotta FIRST NATIONAL BANK with its famous 1926 street clock, a symbol for downtown. A few doors down is the 1933 ROY VAN KLEECK BUILDING (131 Harrison) with its original pine flooring.
A National Register building is the lovely 1934 W. C. SHERMAN ARCADE at 228 Harrison Avenue with a nice two-story atrium. Opposite it is the 1926 COMMERCIAL BANK, built with buff brick and Indiana limestone in an unusual Georgian Colonial Revival style. At 318 Harrison is the 1926 two-story brick FLEMING FOLKES BUILDING, with a facade almost original to the Land Boom days.
You could go East of 4th Street (see map options), but we’ll finish Harrison since the 400 block has two main structures. The RITZ or MARTIN THEATER at 409 Harrison was built in the Art Deco style and today houses an art and performance center. The J S. WILSON FURNITURE and HARDWARE BUILDING (1926) is a three-story brick building that houses the City Information Bureau.
If you drive down 4th you won’t miss the OLD CITY HALL, a 1926 Mediterranean Revival beauty which is headquarters for the Visual Arts Center. The J. ED STOKES BUILDING at 18 East 4th Street was the law office of the long-time State Senator. The 400 block is the 1915 BAY COUNTY COURTHOUSE, probably remembered by many as the site of the Gideon case.
Third Street starts more residential homes and the JUDGE J. MERCER SAPP HOUSE (1916), with its first elevator and hot water, is the most impressive home in Bay County. At 17 East 3rd Street is the 1909 ROBERT McKENZIE HOUSE, a two story-clapboard frame. Both of these homes are on the National Register of Historic Places.