It’s time again to look back and reflect on the year. As I think back I am pleased with progress made protecting our special historic resources, although we also experienced significant challenges. Florida has felt the impact of natural disasters for several years now, but 2018's double whammy of Hurricane Michael and the toxic algae bloom hit the state particularly hard impacting not just historic and cultural resources, but our unique natural environment, communities and industries across Florida.
As the clock ticks down on the last few hours of 2018 let’s look back at three historic preservation wins and losses from 2018.
Three Preservation Losses:
DEMOLITION - St. Michael’s Episcopal Church, Gainesville
Despite years of good work from our friends at Gainesville Modern and members of the Gainesville community, one of Florida’s significant mid-century modern churches was demolished in the last days of 2018, just before a meeting which could have saved it. Current plans call for replacing the church with a Starbucks and a fast food restaurant.
St. Michael’s Episcopal Church was a 44-year-old old church designed by Nils M. Schweizer, who is often known for his association with Frank Lloyd Wright but was also a devout Episcopalian particularly interested in spiritual architecture. He was one of the top designers of churches in Florida during that time period.
The owner of the church, the Episcopal Diocese of Florida, demolished the building before a scheduled January 8 meeting where the preservation and planning boards would have considered designating the church as a local landmark. Landmark classification would have put a 1-year hold on demolition and allowed time to document the building and work to find a preservation-friendly solution. A resource only needs to meet one of five criteria to be designated a historic landmark. Gainesville Modern said St. Michael's met four.
Gainesville also demolished the historically significant art moderne WGGG radio building this year.
DISASTER – Hurricane Michael Damage, North Florida
On October 10, Hurricane Michael made landfall at Mexico Beach causing extensive damage. Bay County, ground zero for the devastating impact of Hurricane Michael, has 10 National Register of Historic Places sites; six Florida Historical Markers, three monuments and 13 notable sites such as museums, parks and cemeteries. Damage from the storm impacted North Florida, and parts of Alabama and Georgia. Impacts were felt as far north as Maryland. The Category 4 storm was the strongest on record to North Florida.
Panama City suffered extensive impact from the storm, including to the 141-year old Governor Stone, a two-masted coasting cargo schooner and a National Historic Landmark (good news: the schooner will be repaired).
The Florida Trust has collaborated with organizations, including the Division of Historical Resources, to help document the damage to historic resources in these areas and share disaster mitigation resources. The challenge going forward will be how to rebuild in ways that are appropriate for the communities impacted by the storm. Here is a story about how Mexico Beach will rely on adhering to its existing Land Development Regulation, comp plan and not altering density to guide its recovery.
“It’s easy to sit here and say we are going to maintain the character, the charm and keep our quaint little community, but somebody has got to work at that.”
DEMOLITION – Firestone Building, Leon County Jail, Tallahassee
In March this year the Firestone Building, one of our 2017 11 to Save, was demolished. Designed by noted Florida architect M. Leo Elliott in 1936. It originally served as the Leon County Jail. It was a rare example of the Art Deco style architecture surviving in Tallahassee. The building was culturally significant for its association with the Civil Rights movement including the incarceration of Reverend C.K. Steele for helping organize and participate in lunch counter sit-ins and bus boycotts. After the jail was relocated in 1966, the building became the home of the Florida Division of Archives, History, and Records Management (now the Division of Historical Resources). The structure was then occupied by the Florida Division of Corporations and renamed the Firestone Building in honor of George Firestone, Florida Secretary of State from 1979 to 1987. It was demolished for a large-scale development including housing and retail space.
Three Preservation Wins:
Preservation in St. John’s County
Despite the fact that St. Johns County is the 14th fastest growing county in the country there have been significant preservation wins this year. The City of St. Augustine adopted a historic preservation master plan following three years of development. The plan focuses on demolitions of historic properties, dealing with flooding and creating incentives for preserving buildings. Also, one of our 2018 11 to Save properties, the Trinity Independent Methodist Church in St. Augustine, is well on its way to being saved. The city plans to spend up to $250,000 to repair the church, which is home to the city’s oldest congregation. And, in celebration of its 80-year- anniversary Marineland re-opened its iconic entry arch which has been closed as an entryway for the last 15 years.
There is concern for the future however, with rural, natural, historic vistas and resources dwindling in the face of rapid growth.
Helping to Preserve a Community in Orlando
The Grand Avenue School in Orlando was constructed in 1926 and in continuous use until 2017. It was recently replaced by a new K-8 school and has been sitting empty. The Orange County School Board and the City of Orlando did a land swap and the City will now redevelop the four square blocks on which the school stands. The $17 million project will see the school renovated and new educational and recreational facilities built on the block. The school was designated an Orlando Historic Landmark in 1995, so the City’s Historic Preservation Board will have a voice in the redevelopment and renovations. The property sits in one of Orlando’s most distressed neighborhoods and the new community center will benefit some of the City’s most under-served residents.
Protecting African American Heritage in Jacksonville
Restoration work to six historic African American cemeteries was approved in Jacksonville this year. The four-year restoration program will clean up and restore these places of remembrance, which are an important piece of Florida's history. We shared a letter of thanks with the mayor's office for supporting this important project. The Florida Trust held our Giving Back event at the Mt. Olive Cemetery in Jacksonville this May, partnering with Florida Preservation Archaeological Network to clean up the historic cemetery and gravestones.
This year, as part of our Florida Preservation Conference, we helped Jacksonville host the first-ever Slave Dwelling Project public event in the state of Florida at Kingsley Plantation.
These are just a few of the important wins and significant challenges Florida preservation faced this year. Thank you to all those who shared your stories to create this list. And thank you all for your support this year. We look forward to working with you in 2019.
Melissa Wyllie is the Executive Director of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, the nonprofit dedicated to protecting Florida's extraordinary history and heritage. She was photographed at the grave of Alexander Hamilton in Trinity Churchyard, Manhattan.