In its more than 100-year history, the city’s Casino building has been the venue for scores of family get-togethers, community gatherings and political meetings.
City leaders recently approved a plan to demolish the beloved community building after a contentious legal battle that divided neighbors and drove a wedge in the community of about 4,000 residents. At one time, community leaders put efforts into saving the historic building, but the lure of $1.5 million in grants for a new library swayed opinion to tear it down.
The battle has soured some who backed saving the building that was briefly listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The venerable old building was razed last week.
“I can’t understand why they have a beloved treasure like that and did not do everything possible to save it,” said Bob Grenier, a Tavares City Council member and historian who served on Fruitland Park’s short-lived historical board in an advisory position. “I really am at a loss with that type of thing. I am very sad about it.”
Goal: save Casino
Built in 1914 by George Clark, one of Fruitland Park’s founders, the Casino never hosted gambling but instead was built as a gathering place for concerts, shows, meetings and festivals. Over the years, the wood-frame Cracker-style building underwent renovations but not enough to keep up with termite damage and other age-related damages. It was donated to the city as a recreation and community space.
When the newly formed Fruitland Park Historical Society set its sights on the building in 2014, it was in need of upkeep. The group worked in earnest to preserve local history as The Villages planned its 2,000-plus home expansion into the city. The historical society moved quickly through the exhaustive process of getting the building listed in July 2015 on the National Register, an honorary designation that opens the doors to federal grants for historic preservation and tax breaks.
About the same time, Jo-Ann Glendinning, the city’s library director who was also on the historical society board, got the news she had been working for: The city was awarded state and local matching grants for a new library building. This set the stage for a showdown between the historical society and the city.
“Needless to say, it got real ugly real fast,” Glendinning said.
Glendinning said city leaders worked tirelessly to find a location for the new library besides the land on West Berckman Street where the Casino is located. When that didn’t work, leaders looked into moving the Casino, until the nearly $500,000 price tag included cutting down trees, slicing through private property and relocating utility lines.
When city leaders decided to tear down the 2,800-square-foot Casino in favor of the new library, the historical society fought back. The group, through its attorney, claimed demolishing the building would violate conditions of the property deed. The city, in turn, sued the historical society in civil court and, in April, won the rights to the future of the building and land.
About the same time, city leaders were answering to the Florida Department of State Division of Historic Resources, which was questioning the demolition. In a heated public meeting in August, local residents and history buffs denounced the plan to demolish the building. The Historical Resources division ultimately recommended the city select a different site for the new library, but had no power to enforce the recommendation.
“The Casino is one of Fruitland Park’s most significant historical public buildings and represents one of the few remaining tangible links to the city’s past,” Timothy Parsons, the director of the Division of Historical Resources, said in an October letter, adding the demolition will “constitute an adverse effect to a significant historical property.”
New library beginnings
In October, city commissioners voted to demolish the Casino and build the new building in the location.
The new 14,000-square-foot library will have community space and include some features from the Casino, including its 100-year-old windows, siding and oak from the stage. A woodworking group will build a replica of the Casino for display and a brass plaque will be hung as a remembrance.
“I understand, their memories are in that building. They grew up in that building. They graduated in that building. There were dances and parties in that building. But those memories are going to be with them forever. We’ve got new people coming in. We’ve got new memories,” she said.
“I’m all for preserving the past, but I will take what I can from the past and put it in the future.”
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