John and Ruth Nitsos: An Average Greek-American Life
JOHN AND RUTH NITSOS:
AN AVERAGE GREEK-AMERICAN LIFE
Published in The National Herald, May 27-June 2, 2017 Issue
Authored by Steve Frangos
TNH Staff Writer
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All things considered, for the times and places they lived, John and Ruth Nitsos were just an ordinary couple. Hardworking Greek immigrants, they quite literally helped build and maintain the society around them.
Yet what the average American (and perhaps even the average Greek-American) would recognize as a life of marked by considerable economic and social success was in the end somehow not enough for John Nitsos. While he left a legacy of sustained material success, Nitsos sought to honor his family with a gift common enough among Greeks in the United States but one rarely acknowledged outside of one's home community.
Nitsos was born in Frangista, Greece on June 2, 1895. At the time of his birth, Frangista was designated as being a part of Evrytania. However, since 2011, local government reform designated that Frangista become part of the Agrafa municipality. Nitsos left Greece in 1910, bound for New York. We know little of Nitsos' life in the North until 1920, when he married Ruth.
The young couple eventually moved South. In a true American entrepreneurial spirit, the Nitsoses established a number of successful restaurants. By the early 1920s they arrived near Mobile, AL and in time had a daughter, Penelope. In the mid- 1940s, they started vacationing along the Gulf coast of the Florida Panhandle.
Sometime in the mid-to-late 1940s, the hardworking Nitsos couple wanted to find their own beachfront retreat. In 1948, after scouring the area for property to build a dream cottage on the beach, they finally found their piece of paradise on a very remote two-lane road that paralleled the Gulf, connecting the then small rural hamlet of Destin to Panama City. What happened next occurred in stages.
Initially, they built a small cottage on Miramar Beach. “Once complete, their cottage was one of the only homes located along a long lonely stretch of highway. On occasion, travelers would stop by and some inquired if they could rent a room in their charming beach cottage. The enterprising couple realized the potential of how much income could be derived from such travelers who were looking for a place to stay in this obscure exquisite piece of paradise near Destin. Soon, they decided to build a small beachfront motel by their home, the Frangista Beach Inn. It was almost an immediate success, so they also built a restaurant to serve their travelers and established a campground for others near the Inn.
Business at the Inn and the surrounding properties kept growing, so they built additional beach cottages that were rented to guests who wanted an out of the way location for a family vacation. Anchored by the Frangista Beach Inn, this isolated part of the beach started to look like a real community so John decided to name it Frangista Beach in homage to his home town in Greece. Before long they added a beach picnic pavilion for guests along with an arcade, a miniature golf course and even a small bowling alley. The Nitsos family successfully operated these businesses for many decades.
The Frangista Beach properties continued to thrive and in 1994 two more rental buildings called Periwinkle and Seabreeze were added bringing it to a total of eleven separate structures. Many of those were completely remodeled and renovated at this same time and an Olympic-sized swimming pool and hot tub were added.
Unfortunately, one year later, the entire area was devastated by Hurricane Opal and most of old Frangista Beach was destroyed. However, the beautiful sugar white beach and emerald colored waters remained along with the family’s substantial parcel of property. Today, Frangista Beach is a well-known upscale shorefront community, consisting of single-family homes and beachfront condominiums that have been featured in major magazines such as Coastal Living and Birmingham Home & Garden.
Sometime between 1959 and 1961 (accounts differ markedly on this point), Nitsos began to build a small chapel at Frangista Beach eight miles east of Destin. It was a simple design, a steeple and alabaster white stucco walls. In memory of his father, Nitsos named it St. Nikolas by the Sea. Nitsos conceived of his chapel as a place where people could find a modest sanctuary for prayer and reflection.
On September 17, 1961, Nitsos was leaving for Greece to secure new materials for his chapel. As he walked out of his front door, he died of a heartattack. His funeral was held on September 19 and he was buried in Pine Crest Cemetery in Mobile (Pensacola News Journal September 20, 1961). After Nitsos' death, the chapel fell into a cycle of considerable disrepair, restoration, and neglect.
In 1977, the St. Nikolas chapel's windows were vandalized which led Pensacola reporter Loyal Phillips to write an overview account on Nitsos and chapel. During the course of his survey, Phillips interviewed Cleopatra Marier, who he quoted: “Greek Orthodox families for centuries constructed on their own property chapels which served by priests from the area diocese...Numerous small chapels were found in waterfront communities and in the hills (Pensacola News Journal June 17, 1977).”
Since their arrival, Eastern Orthodox faithful of all nationalities have not just celebrated their faith but have seen to the building of the very structures in which that faith is collectively experienced. In addition to the local churches, there has been phenomenal growth in small Eastern Orthodox parishes, chapels, shrines, and even monasteries across the continent. The undertaking of building these structures across the country is in keeping with the appearance of this complex of c h u r c h e s / c h a p e l s / shrines/monasteries around the world. Parishioners in these a various places of worship encompass a wide social range in terms of immigration, theological belief, village or region of origin, economic standing, and other components of identity.
To the best of my knowledge the first ethnic Greek to have a chapel in his home was Demetrios Botassi, the Greek Consul in New York City in the very early 1900s. In Thomas Burgess' 1913 study Greeks in America: An Account of Their Coming, Progress, Customs, Living, and Aspirations is the first account in English I have located that speaks of the Greeks building such small chapels in this country. Such chapels are no secret to the Orthodox faithful rather they are part of our everyday lives. The first such chapel I recall seeing was in High Point, NC. My family was attending a local wedding in the early1960s. One day Jerry Thompson, a fine Greek-American gentleman, took me for a walk in High Point. We walked out of his house and down the block a short way. We turned at what proved to be an unpaved alley or driveway running behind the neighborhood houses. At one point he stopped, pointed, and told me to go to this small white garage and look in the window. I had to stand on tiptoe but what I saw was a fully appointed Greek Orthodox church. As it was explained to me, not long after their arrival, the few Greeks in High Point rented this small garage and outfitted as their church. Over the years I have heard similar tales from any number of Greek and Russian Americans.
In the early 2000s, Penelope renovated the chapel. Today, St Nikolas by the Sea remains a place for prayer, reflection, and it is said even weddings. The St. Nikolas by the Sea Chapel is located at 33 Daytona Street in Miramar, Florida. Chapels like it are not just a structural expression of the Orthodox faith, they are often the only aspect of our faith the average American ever “sees.” As with so much about being Greek in North America more of an effort must be made to not just physically maintain these small chapels, but to have them understood by the nonGreek Americans that surround them.