The Gainesville Historic Preservation Board spent more than half an hour at its Tuesday meeting hearing concerns from the community about the future of the Thelma A. Boltin Center even though the center was not on the meeting agenda.
Members of the Friends of Thelma Boltin, a group fighting to preserve the building, attended the meeting to plead with the board to put pressure on the city commission to rethink its current plans.
Each of the six speakers told stories of the building’s historical significance, its status as a Florida heritage site, and their own personal history with the Boltin Center. Many brought photos of the building to hand out to the board members.
Matthew Hurst, a member of the Friends of Thelma Boltin, said the Boltin Center has been an important spot for his family for generations. “My earliest memories are visiting the Boltin Center,” he told the board.
Gainesville resident Melanie Barr told the board about an article in The Gainesville Sun on Wednesday that referenced the center. “This 103-year-old man died and in the first paragraph, it says he married Faye Thornton Barton after having met her at a soldier’s dance at the Thelma Boltin Center,” Barr said.
Robert Mounts, with the Matheson History Museum, also advocated for the Thelma Boltin Center’s preservation.
“I was here when all four alternatives were briefed,” he said. “Not that much money difference between full restoration and the new building.”
On November 16, the Gainesville City Commission is anticipated to discuss approving the contract for the center’s partial restoration.
The commission was supposed to discuss the matter in September, but it was delayed until November to give city staff more time to work with the community.
Hurst said the reason the city council supports the proposal in the first place is due to the Historic Preservation Board’s recommendation to adopt the partial restoration plan last year.
“Several city commissioners have specifically cited the Historic Preservation Board as for why they support the city’s partial restoration plan because they think it’s what you all wanted,” Hurst told the board. “And if that’s the case and you want to preserve the building, I think one of the best ways to do that is with a motion to try and preserve the building.”
In response to the public’s comments, board member Jay Reeves asked the presiding staff officer, Kathleen Kauffman, whether it was an appropriate time to discuss the matter.
Kauffman said it was not, but she was keeping detailed minutes of all the public comments and would be submitting them to the City Commission to make them aware of the public’s concerns.
Bill Warinner, chair of the preservation board, also said that he had sent a letter to the commission members clarifying their support for greater preservation of the building, over preserving just two walls.
The Thelma Boltin Center was built in 1943 and served as a community center and recreation space for Gainesville residents. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the building was closed and is now in need of significant repair.
Most significantly, staff discovered the roof had partially collapsed, and the building was declared to be dangerous by the city in August 2022.
Last year, the Historic Preservation Board voted to move forward with a restoration plan anticipated to cost between $4.8 and $6.2 million, which would be funded by the Wild Spaces & Public Places surtax.
The proposal, which was approved with a 5-1 vote, calls for demolishing significant portions of the building.
After the renovation, only the south and west walls of the auditorium would remain.
The proposal also includes a new expansion of the center and modernization of the building, while still matching the look of the remaining walls.
After the meeting, Matthew Hurst and his mother, Betsy Maloney Hurst, spoke with Kauffman again about the project.
“The staff report and the recommendation is clear,” Kauffman said, clarifying the board’s stance on the issue. “Preserving the gymnasium means preserving the gymnasium, which means whatever you can.”
“Even in a true restoration project, you’re going to have stuff that needs to be replaced.”
Ultimately, no action was taken by the Historic Preservation Board at Tuesday’s meeting, and the Friends of Thelma Boltin are putting their focus on the Nov. 16 City Commission meeting.
According to the group’s website, members are encouraging the public to send emails to the city commissioners and join them at the meeting to make their voices heard.
“We are still trying at the 13th hour, and we have made a lot of progress with the city commissioners,” said Betsy Maloney Hurst. “It would have already been demolished otherwise.”