The Ben Irving Postcard Project: Lakeland, FL

I love Florida, but I also have no doubt in my mind that it is our weirdest state. It leans on its Spanish history in some corners, yet nothing is built to last. It came of age as an ostensible Garden of Eden (some still think the actual Garden of Eden was there*), yet it’s been meticulously plowing under its natural beauty in favor of strip malls, parking lots, and surface highways that necessitate signs warning motorists of the upcoming intersection. I spent a lot of time in the Miami area growing up, and I am just old enough to remember the Rascal House’s last burst of glory before it got swallowed by development. You can refer to David Sax’s Save the Deli (2010) if you’d like to learn more about just how bad things got before they finally cut the cord and closed the place. I’m also looking forward to checking out Andy Sweet’s photo book about the “golden era” of Jewish Miami, which was quickly fading by the time I was old enough to pay attention to my surroundings down there.

Anyway, I will leave Miami for what will ideally be a separate entry once I’m able to visit. Today’s post is about (depending on how you look at the map or believe what the University system dictates) Central or Southern Florida, a region I greatly increased my familiarity with as an adult. As a kid, the Central Region meant Disney World, Universal Studios, and Disney World. Never mind the five-plus major Universities that dotted the sprawling Orlando landscape (Or-landscape?) which have fostered one of the South’s most under-the-radar booming cities for the past two decades? These days, driving through Orlando feels like driving through Atlanta, in that the whole thing appears to be under construction and if you drive through it, you will be white-knuckling past jersey barriers for almost the entire thing. I’ve also written about Tampa here, since it was the setting of one of my favorite AAG meetings.

The focus of this week’s entry is one of Florida’s unheralded smaller cities, Lakeland. During the Florida land-boom that crashed in 1926, Lakeland was a major railway stop between Orlando and Tampa. Today, it’s conveniently located off of I-4, and had I not had a handful of postcards from Ben Irving, I probably would not have paid it much mind.

Let’s go to the tape:

The Hotel Lakeland Terrace, 1939

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“Hotel Lakeland Terrace” postcard (Mailed February 1939) with the Terrace Hotel in the background, taken May 2020.

Here, we have a look at the Terrace Hotel, overlooking Mirror Lake. As the postcard suggests, the lake is filled with all kinds of waterfowl. If you get there in the Springtime, you’ll get a chance to see plenty of mama ducks and mama geese with their offspring:

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According to their official pamphlet (which includes the image from the 1939 Postcard I’m holding up in the photo above), the Lakeland Terrace opened in 1924 under the aegis of Florida Collier Coast Hotels, who had opened nearly identical hotels in Miami, West Palm Beach, and Tampa.

In the days before air conditioning, most hotels opened for The Season and closed by summer. But, the early ‘twenties were boom times in the Sunshine State. Trainloads of tourists poured into cities like Lakeland, beckoned by the siren call of warm weather and the chance to make a quick fortune speculating on cheap land.

Mysteriously, their official literature jumps to when the Lakeland Terrace re-opened in 1998 under the ownership of FCA, Corp. and a Lakelander named Rob Scharar. I don’t know if it’s intentional, but details about the hotel’s inevitable downturn in the 1970s and 1980s are relatively hard to come by. Even the hotel’s Wikipedia page is, as of this writing, languishing as a skeletal draft – very odd for such a historic building.

According to Lonnie Brown’s column on the Opinion Page of the July 12, 1987 edition of the Lakeland Ledger, the city had just re-dedicated the wall around Mirror Lake. Apparently, it had been featured in the January 1930 edition of National Geographic, which I’m going to try to dig up after finishing this sentence. Thankfully, the National Geographic Society are great archivists, and the full run of their print editions are available publicly.

il_1588xn.1236213434_brv2-1The January 1930 edition featured “Twenty-Four Pages of Illustrations in Full Color” for their Florida – the Fountain of Youth feature by John Oliver la Gorce. Given my interest in Florida’s 20th century, this issue would be something of a grail for me. “Flipping” through the digital version online unveils a time capsule of the state, post-land-boom. A full-page ad announces that the Atlantic Coast Railway runs 17 trains per day (25 total in Lakeland by the turn of the century, according to the city’s website) into Florida, only “23 1/3 Hours from New York” (where I imagine the bulk of Nat Geo’s depression-era readers lived). La Gorce’s feature is full of pithy observations about the state, including a great statement about the “real Florida” and the “tourist Florida,” as well as a differentiation between the North and the South: “North Florida… is as different from south Florida as lower Alabama from Cuba.” As one would expect of a major publication from 1930, the writer gave a lot of credit to everyone from Ponce de León to Henry Flagler, the Standard Oil industrialist who he praised as a nearly-divine visionary. The photo of Mirror Lake finally appears on p. 41, comparing it to the entrance to a Venetian palace. It even suggests Lakeland feels like “a fairy city on an iridescent sea,” a statement that Lonnie Brown bore in mind while reflecting on how far things had fallen over the previous five decades:

During a 1987 walk through downtown, with empty stores and an old hotel that is in such disrepair it has been shut down by the city, it is hard to imagine Lakeland as a “fairy city on an iridescent sea” with Venetian overtones.

Brown goes on to praise the refurbishing of the sea wall around the lake, citing how it makes Lakeland appear to be a city invested in its downtown. He continued writing for the paper through the end of 2010, when he retired. LkldNow, an independent local news site, had a bit of history about the building that preceded the Lakeland Terrace on the site. According to the Lakeland Library,

“The Tremont House was built by Lakeland founder Abraham Munn in 1885 at the corner of East Main Street and Massachusetts Avenue, the present site of the Lakeland Terrace Hotel. It was considered to be one of the most elegant hotels in Central Florida at the time of its construction. So elegant was it that it was reputed to have the first bathtubs in all of Lakeland. The Tremont was moved from the corner of Main and Massachusetts to an adjacent lot in 1911 and enlarged. By the 1930’s, however, the Tremont had been eclipsed by the larger and more elegant Terrace, Thelma and New Florida Hotels. It was torn down in 1936.”

I will report back if I find any more details about the downfall of the Lakeland Terrace Hotel; it’s unclear whether the city was crafty with digital scrubbing or if Lakeland was just small enough to fly under the radar with archived news.

Munn Park

Speaking of Abraham Munn, his name remains on the city’s downtown park, which is the subject of my second postcard, which Irving mailed on January 23, 1936.

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Going to Munn Park today with this postcard image in mind is confusing, because the park has been redone numerous times over the years. Save for a thin layer of tall trees which line the park and a pair of patches of greenery, a lot of the vegetation advertised above is no longer there. In fact, as you’ll see a few photos down, most of Munn park is overlaid with bricks and fairly nondescript. The only evident fountain was clearly different from the one in the postcard; had it been the same one, the railroad tracks in the background might have been visible. Something about the fountain yelled “relocated,” but we only had a hunch.

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Thankfully, my partner and I bumped into Julie Townsend, who works for Downtown Lakeland. Julie quickly pointed out where the postcard image pointed, which was the Southwest corner, where Tennessee Avenue met Main Street.

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Again, notice how barren much of Munn Park is. According to Julie, the city wrapped a weird, post-modernist design into their 80’s-era refurbishment of the park, which proved (like a lot of risks city planners were taking back then) less than popular. I can’t recall when she said they took it apart and bricked it over with these cement hexagons, but it definitely had that “unfinished” feel to it. The fountain depicted in the back left corner had long since gone away, and the statue was no longer. I waged a guess that it was a removed Confederate monument, which turned out to be true.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I did some research and found out the statue of the unknown Confederate soldier, funded by the Daughters of the Confederacy in 1910, was just removed from Munn Park last year. Unfortunately, rather than grinding the statue into a fine powder and putting it to good use in one of Lakeland’s numerous construction projects, they’ve simply relocated it to a Memorial Park closeby. Of course, neo-Confederate groups and other people who sport those “I stand for the Flag / I kneel for the Cross” decals are trying to sue the city to put the statue back in Munn Park, and the battle is getting messy in the courts. Hopefully it gets thrown out so we can all go back to living in the 21st century.

The Hotel Thelma

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This was another interesting case study. This postcard was mailed in February of 1939, but stood for another few decades at least, based upon this 1950 photograph I found on Florida Memory (below), which reads: “Built in 1913 at a cost of $125,000 by twin brothers A.B. and D.B. Kibler (phosphate entrepeneurs). Six years later the hotel originally named “The Kibler” was bought by H.B. Carter and renamed. For many years it was a popular place for civic club meetings. It stood on the northeast corner of Kentucky Avenue and Lemon Street.”

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Standard Oil…phosphate entrepreneurs… it’s almost like the state’s lifeblood was underwritten by people whose wealth depended upon destroying its natural beauty. I know I just described almost every state, but especially this one.

Anyway, the Hotel Thelma was torn down in 1962, shortly after this photo (I imagine the final one in existence) was taken. Today, a restaurant called Fresco’s sits on the Northeast corner of Lemon and Kentucky Avenue, and Palace Pizza (visible in the background of both the postcard and the repeat photograph of the block) remains as the one anchor to the city’s past.

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For what it’s worth, Palace Pizza had some of the best pizza I’ve had in Florida, and they didn’t even pay me to post that. They had a big patio available with adequately spaced seating for COVID regulations, too. This meant a lot to my partner and I (in our masks) after one of the (mask-free) managers at Fresco’s stepped within 3 feet of me and practically breathed in my face to tell me that Hotel Thelma used to be there. Helpful, yes, but mindful, no, considering what a pandemic cesspool we’re in here.

According to the best website on the internet, Cinema Treasures, the Palace Theater was also opened in 1913:

Opened in 1913 as the Casino Theatre. Seating was located in orchestra and balcony levels. By 1926 it had been renamed Palace Theatre. By 1941 it was operated by Paramount Pictures Inc. through their subsidiary E.J. Sparks. The Palace Theatre was listed as (Closed) in 1943, but had reopened by 1950.

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The 100 Block of S. Kentucky Avenue, Lakeland, FL, guessing sometime in the 1940s. (Image from the Lakeland Public Library via CinemaTreasures.org).

Strangely, another account of a historic Lakeland Landmark that evaporates before talking about the building’s descent into under-use. One user actually found and linked this 1980 article from the Lakeland Ledger that mentioned how the Palace building had been stripped of its history and uniqueness. According to this listicle, the Palace Theater operated from 1925 – 1950, which contradicts the idea that it reopened after closing in 1950.

Based on my experiences seeking historical sites there, it feels like Lakeland, FL can work as both a cautionary tale about scrubbing your history and a reminder that reinvestment is not a quick fix. Julie Townsend told us that Lakeland was one of Florida’s early major cities because it was located on the rail line that connected Orlando and Tampa. Prior to Orlando’s reinvention as the theme park capital of the planet, old-timers talked about the three cities in the same breath. Today, it’s a fun smaller city with pretty decent pizza, a wonderful lake perimeter walk, a couple of fantastic little record shops, an antique mall on par with the greatest ones I know from Michigan, Frank Lloyd Wright contributions (by the way!) at Florida Southern College, and zero threat of the traffic and headache that one can find around every corner in Tampa or Orlando. When it comes to civic life and urban planning, there’s nothing to be ashamed of a few shameful decades if you’re willing to learn from them.


Liner Notes

* I’m serious. Consult Gloria Jahoda’s book The Other Florida (1967) if this piques your interest.

AAG 2019: Ian MacKaye Q&A, DC Punk Walking Tour, and the First Ever Academic Talk on Florida Man

The long wait is almost over: AAG DC starts this week! Because the meeting’s in the AAG’s (and my former, for a while) home base this year, I’ve been working to arrange a few special events that I’ll be announcing here, on twitter, and via the AAG’s social media as well.  It’s going to be a busy but good time. You can find me at one of the following three events (or of course by just hitting me up).

FRIDAY: A CONVERSATION WITH IAN MACKAYE

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Washington 1, Marriott, Exhibition Level
AAG Session Page – Event Page

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be moderating a discussion with Ian MacKaye for the keynote session of the Media and Communication Geography Specialty Group. Thank you to Ian for his interest as well as to my friend Emily Fekete at the AAG for making this happen. We’ll be talking about the relationship between the city and punk history, as well as the history of Dischord Records and his own musical career (Minor Threat, Fugazi, Embrace, The Evens, and more). Get there early to get a good seat!


SATURDAY 4/6: DC PUNK WALKING TOUR [SOLD OUT]

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Marriott 24th St Entrance

I’ll be honest: I wrote a long, fun draft entry to publish closer to the event for a last-minute push in case it didn’t fill up, but it did. I’m grateful and humbled that this tour has generated as much interest as it has. I’m sorry if you missed a chance to register for a spot, but as with any walking tour, there’s a reasonable chance for a few no-shows. If any spots do open up, I’ll make sure to announce it on twitter and contact those registered.

For now, here is the gist of what I wrote originally. I’ll wait to divulge more details until we’re closer to the event, but there will be surprises, some brought to you by our good friends at Palgrave Publishing, and others brought to you by our tour sites.  You’re probably wondering, “AAG members offer plenty of great walking tours every year; why should I, a person of [indeterminate] interest in punk rock, be looking forward to this one?”

  1. You’ll have time built-in to enjoy some of the best Falafel, Empanadas, or food of your choice that DC has to offer. 
    We’ll be walking through a gastronomic epicenter toward the beginning of our tour that includes a couple of places I absolutely cannot miss when I’m in town. I’m building in some free time for eating and shopping, so you don’t need to eat a gigantic brunch beforehand. But if you do, you’ll have more time to focus on…
  2. Shopping for records, clothes, and other merchandise. 
    Get your souvenir shopping out of the way while learning about DC culture. Why spend your money on some Washington Monument snow globe when you could have something from a boutique where locals actually hang out? Grab that Fugazi record for your turntable or that photo book for your coffee table.
  3. You’ll meet luminaries of the DC punk scene. 
    Any stroll through Adams-Morgan and Mount Pleasant on a Saturday afternoon affords you plenty of chances to bump into somebody who played (and still plays) a key role in the DC punk story. For this tour, I’ve been coordinating cameos from some of my favorite people I knew from the scene when I lived there as well as some great folks I met while working on the book.
  4. You’ll get those steps in.
    Many landmark sites in harDCore history are right down the street from the conference hotel in Adams-Morgan and around the corner in Mount Pleasant. In other words, no hopping on and off of a shuttle, dealing with traffic, or battling tourists on the Metro. That being said, if you have a disability and require transport assistance, please notify us in your registration. From what I remember, all of the key sites we’ll be visiting (and most lunch/shopping options) are accessible.
  5. I will be leading it.
    Not that I would be the biggest selling point, but I’d be grateful to have you along for my first AAG walking tour, in a neighborhood that was so important to me when I lived there (and still is).  Over my time there, I heard so many stories and have so many great memories (not included in Capitals of Punk) I look forward to sharing.

Let me know if you have any questions [sonicgeography at gmail]. We will take off from Marriott Wardman Park’s 24th St Entrance on Saturday 4/6 at Noon. See you there!


SUNDAY: LIGHTNING TALK ON FLORIDA MAN

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Contemporary Issues in Human Geography
Washington 6, Marriott, Exhibition Level

You read that right: I’m engaging with some  research on the Florida Man. This is a topic that, as a cultural geographer with a soft spot for Florida (that I catch heat for, no pun intended), I’ve been interested in for some time. It seems that every six months or so, the internet breathes new life into this apocryphal character. Recently, a meme went around imploring people to google “Florida Man” and their birthday. Much of my research focuses on circulation, and internet-mediated phenomena like these work wonders(?) to perpetuate (inter)national perspectives on what makes Florida assume the mantel of “our weirdest state.”

I understand many of you may have skipped town by Sunday afternoon, but this session looks like it will be amazing: talks on Kingston, Cincinnati, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People (UNDRIP), Climate security, and Uttarakhand.


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Anyway, see you in DC. If you’re not going, you’ll be missed and I’ll be happy to give you all a rundown of the highlights from this year’s meeting on this site sometime after I get back to Knoxville. I’m still reeling as I write this from a great time in Memphis at the Balancing the Mix conference, in fact. Thanks to Mark Duffett and Amanda Nell Edgar for putting it together. If I have time this week (that’s a big ‘if’), I’ll post an update or two about the conference as well as the West Tennessee chapter of the Ben Irving Postcard Project.

#AAG2017 Recap Part III: A Visit to Mirror Lake (St. Pete, FL)

As the AAG meeting was winding down, I snuck out of Boston a night early to fly to Tampa. Two of my good friends from Knoxville were back in the States (he and his Scottish wife live in the UK now; long story) to officially tie the knot. The American half’s folks retired to Western Florida some years ago, and they wanted to give their son a proper party in the US while they had the opportunity. So, a few of us converged on St. Petersburg for a couple of days. Though much of our trip was taken up by the Sunday wedding (my friend Shane, who has appeared on this blog multiple times, did a great job officiating it), we managed to fit in several other activities. We ate lunch at Taco Bus, spent some time at the beach, went to the Dali museum and caught a great Frida Kahlo exhibit, checked out Banana’s Records, and last but certainly not least, tracked down the site of another Ben Irving Postcard.

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Ben mailed this one from St. Petersburg on February 10, 1939. He had spent so much time in Florida over that decade, it would be fairly safe to assume that he’d decided by this point to retire down there eventually (as he did). He didn’t indicate whether he stayed in the Suwannee Hotel, pictured there, directly across Mirror Lake from the artist’s vantage point.

Considering how the hotel was a prominent selling point for the city in D. P. Davis-development-era postcards, I had a surprising amount of difficulty finding anything about the building other than cursory information. A few sources indicated that the hotel was closed but the building had been converted into “offices for Pinellas County,” which was not all that helpful in figuring out the coordinates. The postcard also didn’t have the address or phone number anywhere on it. The caption on the back just said it was “a fireproof building with 205 modernly-equipped, well-ventilated, steamheated guest rooms. Located in the center of everything of interest” and implored people to write the Managing Director John N. Brown for rates. At the time, the postmaster in St. Petersburg would know exactly where a landmark like a hotel with over two hundred rooms was, so an address was not really necessary for someone to write them. I only had the browser on my phone available at the time, so advanced newspaper searches were out of the question. Thankfully, the building’s location near Mirror Lake helped me to sort it out using Google Maps, since it’s highly unlikely that the city took such drastic measures during redevelopment that they needed to move a lake.

I sorted through potential locations, looked at buildings in street view, and settled on a location at the corner of 1st Avenue and 5th Street on the southeastern corner of Mirror Lake.

Until I tried to investigate the hotel building, I had completely forgotten that St. Pete and Tampa are in two different counties, which I suppose makes sense if they are separated by a big body of water, but creates an administrative nightmare for getting people and capital between the two cities. In the sports geography case, the Lightning and Buccaneers both play in Hillsborough County (Tampa proper) while the Rays play in Pinellas County (St. Pete). It seems hard enough to get from one city to the other using public transit, so I don’t want to imagine what it was like for the counties to battle over the Tampa Bay sports franchises.

Anyway, back to the vantage point search. In an attempt to recreate the aesthetic of the postcard image, I convinced my companions to visit the site as the sun was setting. We drove over to Mirror Lake right around 7:00 pm, as the sun was setting, and it was finally no longer too hot to comfortably walk around. In fact, the temperate was perfect and the Mirror Lake ring road felt like heaven as the Spanish Moss floated in the breeze. I knew if we let the sun get too low that my phone’s camera (not too advanced to begin with) would have trouble adjusting for the dusk light levels.

We parked the car next to a gorgeous church across the lake from where the Suwannee Hotel’s apparent address was.

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I was considering including this as a ‘bonus’ item to my Boston re-photography entry, but once I started writing what you’re about to read below, I decided to give Mirror Lake its own entry.

One thought that occurred to me is how Florida, while already carrying the title of ‘America’s Weirdest State,’ is exceedingly difficult to parse geographically. This may actually have something to do with how weird the state is. Most people know the mantra about how Florida is culturally split between a ‘southern’ North and a ‘northern’ South, but once you actually observe and take stock of the state’s cities, that dichotomy is complicated. For example, three of the biggest cities in the state (two of which are twin cities…kind of) are laid out across the nebulous transition zone. Orlando, St. Petersburg, and Tampa are all crossroads between South and North Florida. Orlando is the home to University of Central Florida (among many other colleges), where Tampa Bay, not much farther South than Orlando, is the home to the University of South Florida. I’ve never heard anybody describe Tampa Bay as “southern Florida,” considering how much territory is located beneath it. Granted, the Everglades eat up a lot of the land west of Miami, but there are still a large handful of prominent cities strewn across the marshy Southwest coast, like Sarasota and Naples. Only four proper cities (Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Daytona, and Jacksonville) fall clearly into those cultural categories, two of each on each side of this highly arbitrary and slowly unraveling (in my mind, at least, as I’m typing this out) division.

I’ve gone on record here claiming that Gainesville is my favorite city in Florida, but it’s by no means a “major” city, considering it owes its existence to a massive land grant and perpetually growing state University. I know popular culture has tried to ensconce Gainesville within the realm of ‘southern’ Northern Florida, between a CMT reality show and generations of ‘southern fried’ punk bands, but it’s still a college town full of Caribbean influence and enough Jewish students to merit knishes on the menu at hole-in-the-wall diners.  I’ve only been to Tallahassee twice, and I haven’t seen any knishes for sale anywhere, but the moment I expand this conversation into the panhandle is the moment I expand the geographic discussion by about 4 paragraphs. I don’t want to disparage Pensacola, though, since SEDAAG 2015 was enjoyable, I have some good friends there, and it’s only 45 minutes from Mobile.

Anyway, this is all to say that, yes Florida is weird, but to the cultural geographer, weird is almost always good. As long as I live, seeing Spanish Moss swinging in the breeze will always fill me with joy. It’s so serene, it makes it easy to forget how invasive and harmful the species is. Not that I’m any ecological expert, either.