Friday, April 27th, 2012
By Lauren Carroll
In spite of adversity, Flora-Bama’s spirit prevails. What began in 1964 as a non-descript roadside package store selling liquor soon became a booze haven for residents of dry Baldwin County across the border in Alabama. The beachside oyster bar and lounge on the Florida side of the Florida–Alabama border grew to include 20 indoor and outdoor bars and multiple live music venues. Mixology lore even contends that a drink, the Bushwacker, was invented here. The Flora-Bama’s annual Mullet (not the haircut, but a plentiful, indigenous fish) Toss weekend became a Gulf shores tradition, attracting tens of thousands. The Bama has also become a symbol of American perseverance in the face of natural calamity in region. The charm of the old roadhouse bar has been reborn in a recent rebuild by Dalrymple/Sallis Architects. And just in time, the Bama hosts the Annual Interstate Mullet Toss this very weekend.
In 2004, Hurricane Ivan ravaged Pensacola landing directly on the Flora-Bama and destroying most of its main building. The bar stayed open but in 2010, the owners decided to rebuild, picking Dalrymple/Sallis Architects to take on the project from a list of five other firms. The design challenge for the $1.3 million project was anything but simple. As Dean Dalrymple tells us, "to preserve the character of the Flora-Bama while still complying with the current building code" meant taking the input of the owners, but also the clientele, seriously but balancing with regulations of various jurisdictional authorities. “A commercial coastal structure located on the Gulf of Mexico must meet the regulations of various jurisdiction authorities including the Department of Environmental Protection, Water Management District, Fish and Wildlife Service, and FEMA,” he notes. The structure had to be designed to be tough—even the “sacred” to locals outdoor tents are made to survive storms and the original kitschy décor is mounted to survive gale force winds.
One key practical element to the Flora-Bama rebuild was to provide enough (real) bathrooms for the 50,000 plus people that attend the Mullet Toss each year—the original building had just three. The new building has more than 20. A 10,000 gallon water cistern was the answer to the water retention question. If you’re unfamiliar, the annual Mullet toss, which takes place the last weekend in April, April 27–29, 2012. Competitors see how far across the state line they can toss a Mullet (the fish) to win a grand prize.
Concessions to style are subtle, but there are some modern touches—much of the wood used was recycled from Alabama barns and plywood is used creatively throughout. Ultimately, however, it was honoring the magic of the original, authentic Flora-Bama that guided the big design decisions. “Early in the design process we learned that there are no VIPs at the Bama. Those familiar with the 'old" Bama were always considered during the design and verified that the right decisions were made with their praise and acceptance of the new 'old' Bama,” says Dalrymple. That meant, for example, that the old layout which required patrons to enter through via a liquor store into the “locals bar” and then to the main room where acts like Kenny Chesney, Jason Aldean, and Jimmy Buffet have been known to play was replicated in the new design. The old cedar and cyprus countertop from the bar was salvaged and installed. The critics are pleased, moved even—one man broke down and cried when he entered the reborn Flora-Bama. That’s the kind of design review that means more than a shelf full of awards.