‘Demolition by neglect’: Community members raise concerns for Boltin Center restoration
Besty Hurst has spent her entire life in the Thelma A. Boltin Center. From attending dances and concerts called “teen time” as a child, to performing with orchestras at the center as an adult, the center provided a much-needed hub for Hurst and members of the Gainesville community.
Now, the center has sat vacant since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and faces serious structural concerns. Hurst hopes the building can be restored to serve the community and represent Gainesville’s history.
“To me it will be a special jewel and help hold the area together,” Betsy Hurst said. “And I'm hoping, change the tide for knocking down everything that can be just to put up another high rise in a place maybe where it shouldn't be.”
A December 2020 inspection uncovered damage to the center’s roof, and the city has since been working to develop a restoration plan to reopen the center. Concerns raised by members of the community have led to conversations about the scope of the restoration, and a motion was approved Sept. 21 by the Gainesville City Commission to sign a contract with architect Wannemacher Jensen until at least Nov. 2.
Until the project is complete, Hurst and the rest of Gainesville will not be able to access the building, which currently sits empty with scaffolding lining the dark interior and a blue tarp draped over the damaged shingle roof.
The center was originally built in 1943 as a recreation space for servicemen. It was later expanded to a city-wide community recreation center, and Thelma Boltin served as the programs director since its opening. When she passed in 1992, the city renamed the building to Thelma A. Boltin center.
“As a child, we probably took a lot for granted, to be honest,” Hurst said. “Because Gainesville had a lot of beautiful historic structures.”
The deterioration of the roof has put the building at risk for water damages and updates to the electrical system and disabled accessibility are needed in order to meet code. The City Commission originally approved plans to renovate the building in 2019, but approved new plans in April 2022 to demolish the site altogether.
The Gainesville Historic Preservation board fought this decision and ultimately the two bodies agreed on a new proposal in December 2022 to plan a restoration project.
Elizabeth Hauck, a member of the Historic Preservation Board, said she felt that the decision to tear down the building was too hasty.
“My view was, you’ve only had one person look at this, they’re not an expert on historic buildings,” she said. “We need a second opinion.”
Hauck said the board invited a different architect to explain the possibility of restoring the building to the City Commission, and said that the board thought the building could and should be saved.
“We can't keep letting our historic buildings fall apart and be erased through demolition by neglect,” she said.
The Historic Preservation Board and the City Commission weighed multiple restoration options, ranging from the minimum repairs to reopen the building to a complete restoration of the building.
The two agreed April 27 on a partial restoration with an estimated cost of $5.4 million, funded by Gainesville’s Wild Spaces and Public Places half-cent tax. The plan includes tearing down the building’s east wing, which was partitioned for office space as of 2020, and expanding the main auditorium building as well as adding other flooring to open space for more usage.
Following an agreement on the restoration plan and the process of finding an architect, the city commission was set to approve a contract with Wannemacher Jensen Sept. 21.
The vote was set for a new date after an hour of public comment from community members expressing concerns the restoration is overly advantageous.
Melanie Barr, a resident of Gainesville’s Duck Pond neighborhood — where the center is located — and a founding member of the Duck Pond Neighborhood Association, raised concerns over losing the building’s east wing.
“It's not beautiful architecturally, but historically, it's the most significant part,” she said. “Because this is shown in every photo from the 1940s to the 1960s.”
Barr also argues expanding the center costs too much and would require too much staff to maintain.
“What are they doing with staff people? They’re laying them off,” she said. “So here they're going to have this great big new building and nobody to run it.”
Kathleen Pagan graduated with her Master of Urban and Regional Planning from the University of Florida in 1986, and moved back to Gainesville permanently in 2000. She learned about the restoration plans while doing research for Living New Deal on buildings funded by former president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal, which helped create the Boltin center.
Pagan said she’s in favor of expanding the building as well as creating more space by restructuring the east wing. But, she said she is concerned that an overexpansion could put the building at risk of flooding, as the floodplain of the Sweetwater Branch Creek sits along the center’s property.
“When the building was built, it's very possible that they didn't realize there was a flooding risk, but it is in the 100-year floodplain,” Pagan said.
Most residents who made public comments last month, including Gainesville resident Matthew Hurst, agreed the restoration plan should focus less on expansion and more on retaining the identity of the building.
“I think [the restoration plan is] kind of overkill,” he said. “And I think it's one of those things where some people in the community who want the full restoration don't quite understand what the city means by that.”
At-large City Commissioner Reina Saco voted against the motion to delay the contract vote until November. The City tarped the roof damage on the building Tuesday and are in the process of planning an event for community engagement before the next vote. Saco said there have been plenty of opportunities for comment and delaying the decision holds consequences.
“Time is money,” Saco said. “If we had started this a couple months ago, contract prices might have been cheaper, materials might be cheaper… there could be more damage to the building.”
Saco said she hopes the City Commission can come to an agreement Nov. 2 and move forward with restoring the building to a functional state.
“Nostalgia is a beautiful, wonderful thing,” Saco said.
The center has provided itself as a hub in Gainesville for nearly a century. Now, residents hope a proper restoration can bring the building back into the center of the community.
“I’m hoping we can wake up and get groups and do that while Gainesville still has some of that left,” Hurst said.