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Sunday, February 05, 2023

Gainesville to demolish historic recreation center

City commission voted to demolish the historic Thelma A. Boltin Center during National Preservation Month despite residents’ opposition

<p>The historic Thelma A. Boltin Center that was voted to be demolished by the city commissioners. </p>

The historic Thelma A. Boltin Center that was voted to be demolished by the city commissioners.

Twenty-one days after city commissioners voted 6-0 to demolish and replace the historic Thelma A. Boltin Center, Mayor Lauren Poe deemed “People Saving Places” as Gainesville’s theme for National Preservation Month 2022. 

Residents are confused with the conflicting decisions. 

The Boltin Center, an 80-year-old building located at 516 NE Second Ave., has served as a United Service Organization for members to socialize, play bingo, dance and attend plays since 1942. This month’s theme honors those who pour their time, energy and resources into protecting places like the center. 

Since its last renovation in 1999, the center has expanded to a multipurpose gathering space for residents. The center’s structure has since depreciated due to wartime construction methods and minimal maintenance during the pandemic. 

An April 14 presentation referenced termite damage, hollow walls, an undersized foundation and a collapsed roof as reasons to demolish the center. The decision has garnered community opposition for its threat to the building’s historical significance. Melanie Barr, the secretary of the Alachua County Historical Commission, said the city failed to consult the Historical Preservation Board and nearby Duckpond residential area before voting to demolish the center.

The center represents Boltin’s contributions to the community and holds historical significance to rock ‘n’ roll hall-of-famers, Florida folk culture and the dancers, she said.

Since the 1980s, the center has hosted the Gainesville Oldtime Dance Society’s meetings, including annual contra dance events that drew dancers from across the country. 

"They come from all over the nation to dance here, so it has significance to people now and should not be demolished," Barr said.

The dance society’s president, Albert “Al” Rogers, 73, said his non-profit organization is disappointed by the demolition but hopes to influence the design of the new center, specifically the flooring.

A new design would give a cohesive flow and better circulation to the building by developing a second multipurpose space and widening gathering spaces, Elizabeth “Betsy” Waite, the director of Wild Spaces and Public Places, said.

Waite started designing a new building to replace the center in late 2019. She said replacing the building’s roof is not possible because the walls and foundation of the building cannot support the structure.

Waite estimates demolition and rebuilding will cost about $3 million. She said the new center would provide neighbors with better access to programs and activities like dance, theater, concerts and yoga.

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Barr showed board members photos of buildings needing similar repairs that were eventually restored to fit the needs of residents. 

“If they're allocating $3 million to build a new building, they can spend $3 million renovating a landmark,” Barr said. 

Kathleen Pagan works as the senior planner at Alachua County Growth Management and helps to document historical structures on The Living New Deal website. The center, she said, is one of more than 450 remaining.

“It's very important to maintain existing buildings,” she said. “The greenest building, as you know, is the one that already stands.”

City staff is negotiating a contract with the design team for the new building. The new center is slated to reopen in summer 2024 following construction next summer.

Contact Mickenzie Hannon at Follow her on Twitter @MickenzieHannon.

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Mickenzie Hannon

Mickenzie is the local elections reporter and previously covered city and county commission for The Alligator’s Metro Desk. She's a fourth-year journalism major and is specializing in data journalism. When Mickenzie isn’t writing, she enjoys watching horror movies, reading, playing with her pets and attending concerts.

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