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