"Architecture is a visual art, and the buildings speak for themselves." - Julia Morgan
Through the early 1980’s HLI enjoyed a supportive relationship with the City Commission and began to sponsor events and programs to encourage the restoration of the Frances Langford Promenade. HLI’s singular focus was returning Lakeland’s greatest historic site to its earlier place as the centerpiece of the community and symbol of the city’s future greatness. But the Promenade had been allowed to deteriorate significantly, to the point of becoming an eyesore.
Jean Bunch, Mildred Grizzard, Juanita Black, and the entire HLI board began to raise funds for the proposed restoration and enlist community institutions to support the effort. The Lakeland Board of Realtors put together a huge variety show held at Branscomb Auditorium and the Junior League donated $15,000. With the successful nomination to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, HLI planned a celebration on July 3, a “Sundown Celebration” with cooperation from the City, who provided fireworks, and the Florida Department of Transportation’s closing of Lemon Street for a few hours, giving the community a glimpse of what a Lake Mirror Park could become. The Lakeland Ledger published a tabloid on July 3 that was based upon the National Register nomination, and the event that night was reminiscent of early patriotic celebrations at this venue that Lakelanders had enjoyed. It was so popular that HLI continued it for several more years, and eventually became the City’s annual “Red White and Kaboom!” celebration.
Even after significant work had been accomplished to restore the sea wall and loggia area along the Promenade, the existence of the road around the south shore prevented its intended use. Elected officials and administrators were unenthusiastic about further efforts, fearing it would be too expensive and divert funds from other priorities. Undeterred, HLI continued a program to expand public support and advocated for the removal of Lemon Street, which in the early 1950s had been extended around the lake adjacent to the Promenade, despite the warning by the Promenade’s designer, Charles Wellford Leavitt, to never extend a road on the south side and cut off the lake from the park. Early efforts to “close the road” were dismissed by several City Commissioners and HLI turned its efforts toward the State. Jean Bunch and others made several trips to Tallahassee to solicit support. In 1983, Florida’s State Historic Preservation Officer George Percy took a strong interest in HLI’s efforts. In that same year, Jim Studiale was asked to serve on the state grant awards jury and Lake Mirror Restoration was ranked first among dozens of applications for restoration and received substantial funding to begin the project. In 1984, Lake Mirror was featured in the State of Florida cultural/tourism calendar. HLI’s final push came by way of a video showing prominent Lakelanders explaining the merits of restoring Lake Mirror and using the slogan “Restore the Park,” instead of close the road.
Soon support for restoration was unanimous. Larry Durrence had been elected to the City Commission and was an effective advocate. In about 1986, the City took over the project and began a multi-phased restoration of the historic elements. Lake Mirror continued to grow in popularity and was beginning to be seen as a key part of downtown’s redevelopment. Eventually, the City undertook an even more extensive plan for the park’s development (Lake Mirror Master Plan; Glatting Jackson). Subsequently, the City and Lakeland Downtown Development Authority (LDDA) funded the full restoration or creation of park features that had never been completed, such as the amphitheater, and several new features.
LANDMARKS, ARCHITECTURE, POLITICS
Even as Lake Mirror’s restoration was assured, HLI had new and difficult battles to prevent the destruction of other important Lakeland structures. Early in its existence, a program was created by John White to honor and thus designate “Landmark Buildings”. This served multiple purposes, the most important being education, as well as promotion of these buildings as essential to the community and worthy of preservation, rehabilitation, and reuse. The Terrace Hotel, the Park Trammell Building, the New Florida Hotel, Old Lakeland High School, the Marble Arcade, the Polk Theatre, the Oates Building and about a half dozen others received the designation and were recognized with formal ceremonies where bronze medallions were presented for mounting on the building entries. It did not take long for some of these often neglected and vacant buildings to face demolition (Lakeland had a poor economy in the 1980’s and had not experienced the economic resurgence that has marked recent decades). By necessity, HLI became a force in local politics and in trying to establish not only a preservation ethic, but also an architectural ethic in a changing Lakeland.
In the early 1990s, the Mayor and City leaders decided a new police station should be built at the site of the old Lakeland High School. It was purely coincidence that this building was chosen to be featured on HLI’s annual Christmas Ornament, and hundreds of ornaments were ordered months before. City leaders made it clear the building would be “gone by Christmas” and despite HLI’s prior successes, there was little doubt at City Hall that the deal to purchase the long vacant, School Board-owned building and demolish it was sure to move forward. Once HLI brought forward its diverse and growing membership into the discussion, the effort slowed and in time several City Commissioners began to change their minds. The discussion dragged into the next year and was heated at most meetings with a good number of ordinary citizens joining in. In time, a different site for the police station was chosen. Commissioner Tom Shaw said it best when he withdrew his vote noting “that building gets better looking every time I hear from you folks.”
Restoring Lake Mirror and saving the Old Lakeland High School (now Lawton Chiles Middle Academy) are only two of the early successes of HLI. Similar battles erupted over the Park Trammell Building (Chamber of Commerce), the Coca-Cola Building (now the Lakeland Fire Department Administration Building), and the New Florida Hotel (now Lake Mirror Tower), and each was within a whisker or a single vote of suffering at the hands of those who prefer new over old.
Over the years HLI has worked hard to find new uses for old buildings, and today the value of both commercial and residential structures is far more appreciated. One hopes all of Lakeland has gained a sense of how important it is to preserve our history or perhaps we are simply smarter in recent years due to the great efforts of many in educating the community and leaders who can decide the future of our historic resources.
In those early decades it was an uphill battle with many victories and unfortunately a few defeats. We now have the complimentary efforts of the City’s Historic Preservation Board. To be clear, HLI is only able to advocate for Lakeland’s history and for preserving historic resources and educate the public on their benefits. The HPB has both the legal authority and responsibility for protecting historic resources, particularly those in all seven of Lakeland’s established historic districts. Together, these organizations are involved in recognizing, honoring, and preserving Lakeland’s history and its historic resources.
Contributed by Jean Bunch, Jim Edwards, and Jim Studiale.
By Becoming a Member of HLI you can help the Lakeland Community in holding on to its diverse culture, architectural beauty and history for the enjoyment of generations to come! Get all the details on membership by clicking the button below.