January 29, 2020

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The Thomas Center: The Building with 9 Lives

An alabaster figurine, a throw rug, a chime mantel clock; piece by piece, the William Reuben Thomas Center is collecting parts of its history to share with a new generation of visitors and guests. The wishlist of items is extensive, but so is the 103-year history of the property.

As facilities director Erica Chatman explains, the center has served many lives: first as a family home and a resort hotel, then as a community college, and finally its current use as a cultural center and city office building.

“It’s become the crown jewel of the city’s holdings,” Chatman said. “(The city) would never give it up now.”

Each room in the building, which is located just northeast of downtown Gainesville in the historic Duckpond neighborhood, is layered with decorations and furniture from the property’s hotel era, which began in the 1920s. Rare finds include a painting that originally hung in the hotel and the Thomas family bible, tracked down by members of the Thomas Center Associates, a group of devoted historians that has worked for more than three decades to restore the building.

Family Home

The home was built in 1906 as a family home for Charles Chase, a prominent owner of a successful phosphate company. In 1910, former Gainesville mayor Major William Reuben Thomas, the building’s namesake, bought the home.

For the next 15 years, Thomas, his wife Kathryn and their five children lived in the 15,000-square-foot, 21-room home, putting their own unique touches including a barn, gymnasium and gardener’s cottage. The family constructed outdoor sleeping porches to satisfy Thomas’ belief of the benefits of sleeping outdoors.

At the time, Thomas’ family called the classical revival-style property Sunkist Villa, and used its grounds to host social events and meetings as Thomas continued his career as an educator, banker, land developer and businessman. He was one of the supporters who helped move the University of Florida to Gainesville from Lake City in 1905. The university honored his help by dedicating its oldest building, Thomas Hall, in his name in 1906.

Hotel Thomas

Seeing the potential of the travel boom during the 1920s, the family decided to open a hotel. Developers enlisted architect W. A. Edwards, who designed many of the early buildings on the UF campus, to design a three-story addition on the north side of the home that would house 94 guest rooms.

Hotel Thomas opened in 1928, featuring a glass-ceiling atrium, three dining rooms and four lounges for guests to socialize. During its peak years, the hotel hosted famous guests such as Helen Keller and poet Robert Frost. As the world around it changed, the hotel shifted to meet its needs, hosting officer club meetings in its basement during World War II and opening a public cocktail lounge in one of its parlors in 1963.

Community Building

Eventually, Southern Florida’s white sand beaches began to draw tourists farther south for vacations and guest numbers began to dwindle, so in 1968, the Thomas family sold the property. The property’s new owners leased the building to what was then Santa Fe Community College to serve as its campus while construction was completed on its current campus in northwest Gainesville.

Little was done to maintain the building during the time it served as a college campus; many assumed it would be torn down once the lease was up.

That all changed in 1974, when Sam Gowan got the notion to save the building in the middle of the night. A resident of the Duckpond neighborhood, Gowan founded Historic Gainesville Inc. and began urging local residents to fight the demolition of Hotel Thomas.

“The neighbors around us got together in a grassroots effort and rallied the city to save the building and create a bond issue for the city to purchase the property,” Chatman said.

When preservation efforts began, the once glamorous hotel had been deteriorating for years and had been stripped of anything valuable by its last tenants. Where others might have seen a run-down building, Gowan saw promise.

He led the effort to preserve and restore the building, culminating in itsacceptance into the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.Renovations wrapped up in 1979, and city staff moved into the building shortly after.

The city split the building into two parts: The original family home makes up Thomas Center A, which houses the Division of Cultural Affairs; Thomas Center B, the original hotel addition, now houses multiple city departments ranging from the housing department to parks and recreation.

The building hosts about 300 city meetings each year, but is also available for event rentals. The university uses its halls to hold banquets and staff retreats, while companies use it for multi-day seminars and corporate holiday parties. Cultural events such as a Jazz Era showcase are offered to the public as part of the Division of Cultural Affairs’ dedication to the arts community.

“To have a family move in at the turn of the century without any central air system, it’s interesting to see the building change over the years into its modern incarnation and to have art galleries and concerts,” Chatman said. “We’ve really gone full circle into the 21st century. We are even offering cell phone tours.”

Weddings are held throughout the historic complex, from ceremonies in the Spanish Court to receptions in the Thomas Gardens. During the busy season, the center can host three weddings in one weekend.

Gowan passed away in 2009, but his widow, Joan, acts as the center’s docent, providing tours of the property to visitors and local school children.

Considered a city park, the property was able to use Wild Spaces, Public Places funds in the late 2000s to continue small restorations, including replacing the building’s roof and restoring the checkered floor in the Spanish Court. Today, city officials mill through the revived lounges and guest rooms-turned-offices to conduct government business, continuing its legacy as a pivotal meeting space in the community.

“We are certainly busy for a building that was almost torn down,” Chatman said.

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