WUFT News

Cotton Club Renovation Seeks Community Support with Free Tours

By on December 6th, 2013

The renovation project of the Cotton Club of Gainesville, the historic music venue in East Gainesville where the likes of B.B. King and Ray Charles performed, is at a standstill.

The rehabilitation plans for the historic building — an entertainment hub for the African-American community in the first half of the 20th century — is being preserved as a museum and cultural center.

The reason for the delay? They do not have enough money, said Dr. Charles Kibert, director of the University of Florida Powell Center for Construction and Environment and head of the project. The project needs another $1.5 million in order to finish.

The restoration efforts for the site began in the mid ’90s when Mt. Olive A.M.E. Church next door purchased the historic property. But, the renovation gained momentum, right before the economic downturn, with a $350,000 state grant in 2007,

Now, the project’s board of directors wants to remind the community of the property’s historic value, and have organized tours of the site this weekend.

“The main purpose is to keep people aware of project,” said Deloris Rentz, financial secretary of the board, “but also to inform them of the history.”

A Place for Weekend Gigs

Eighty-three-year-old Richard McClellan held in his hands a 56-year-old black and white photo of his band and its original business card with their name “The High Notes” typed across the top. McClellan is the only surviving band member.

The High Notes practiced two to three times a week in one of the band member's home. This photo was taken in 1957 while performing at a local fraternity house. (Band members from left to right) Vocalist James Henry, 27, Marion McClellan, 30, Richard McClellan, 27, Hampton McClellan, 24.

Olivia Langdon / WUFT News

The High Notes practiced two to three times a week in one of the band member's home. This photo was taken in 1957 while performing at a local fraternity house. (Band members from left to right) Vocalist James Henry, 27, Marion McClellan, 30, Richard McClellan, 27, Hampton McClellan, 24.

The High Notes' business card used in the mid '50s. The band performed at the Cotton Club of Gainesville and traveled to surrounding counties to perform popular rhythm and blues music.

Olivia Langdon / WUFT News

The High Notes' business card used in the mid '50s. The band performed at the Cotton Club of Gainesville and traveled to surrounding counties to perform popular rhythm and blues music.

The Gainesville native began playing the saxophone in the 5- to 8-piece band in the mid ‘50s. It varied on who was available. McClellan said some of the members didn’t play an instrument. Labeled “horn holders,” some held an instrument and pretend to play during the band’s performance.

The High Notes, a local band, performed weekend gigs at nightclubs and bars around town and in surrounding counties as far as Palatka.

They also played at the Cotton Club of Gainesville. Known for featuring rhythm and blues icons like B.B. King, Ray Charles and Brook Benton, the Cotton Club served as a place for entertainment; a place where McClellan and The High Notes performed popular radio songs for the black community in a segregated town.

“People wanted to hear what was playing on the jukebox,” McClellan said.

Although they did not attract as large of crowds as the “state bands”, like Ray Charles and the Honeydrippers, 40 to 50 locals would come to the Cotton Club to dance and enjoy good music from about 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., he said.

He’s a community man, born and raised in the Pleasant Street District. But Gainesville is not the solid community it once was, McClellan said.

He said he feels other projects in the Depot area are taking precedence over Cotton Club renovation efforts. Still, he is fond of the progress that has been made for the museum and cultural center.

“Matter of fact I’ve been in it since they remodeled it,” he said. “They’re doing a jam-up job with that.”

Preserving History

The Florida Historical Commission provides programs and state grants to preserve historic buildings. After the national economic downturn, there was less grant money available for historic preservation programs.

“So the state’s preservation board grants went away, and we couldn’t apply for second tier of them,” Kibert said. “It’s a pity…that money went away.”

This halted the project. Now the Cotton Club lacks necessary funding to continue.

“The community is very enthusiastic about doing it, but there’s not a lot of resources that they can go after internally to the African-American community,” Kibert said. “They have some ambitions about athletes and musicians and so on, but so far those loops have not been closed.”

For now, they are working on an ongoing partnership with the Community Redevelopment Agency, which has already contributed funds. The agency distributes tax dollars for economic development projects.

The Cotton Club is considered an economic development because it is part of the Depot Avenue area being restored. The city is intending to make that area an entry hub for Gainesville.

“So that is going to become a big attraction for Gainesville,” Kibert said. “And right down the street is going to be the Cotton Club.”

Kibert hopes to have the project completed in three years.

So far, the building has been brought up to code with major funding from the CRA, Florida grants and other donors like Perry Roofing, he said.

“Keith Perry, who’s a Republican representative of this area, he stepped up to the plate and said, ‘You guys buy the materials for the roof, my guys will put it in for free,’” Kibert said. “BAM, so it cost us half as much as it would have.”

They are trying to follow that model for the remainder of the project asking the Gainesville Builders Association of North Central Florida to install the materials that they buy.

“We’ll take whatever we can get,” he said. “We will even put our students to work as laborers.”

This weekend will be a unique opportunity for the public to tour The Cotton Club property and view the renovation progress. Free tours will take place on Saturday from 2 to 3:30 p.m. and on Sunday from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on site. Vivian Filer, a local dedicated to the Cotton Club renovation project, will be leading the tours.


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