The Thelma Boltin Center, 516 NE 2nd Ave. in Gainesville, was known as the Serviceman’s Center when it was built in 1942-43 for WWII soldiers to socialize, rest and relax before being sent to Europe the Pacific theater. It is the only known building in the State of Florida built as a home away from home for servicemen during WWII by a City.
Volunteer architects designed the building with two sections, the east wing and the auditorium. The 1942 City Commission insisted on building both parts of the building. The City did not want the building proposed by Federal government. The City Commissioners won and the building that you see today was constructed with two parts.
It is now named the Thelma Boltin Center because she was the Program Director for the soldiers’ activities, and when the War ended she became the Recreation Director for the City of Gainesville. Her most significant action as the Program Director was booking local teen bands whose members were later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The building is a State Heritage Site, and a contributing building to a National Register Historic District.
In 2019, the Gainesville City Commission voted to renovate the Center. Later, the staff gave the Commissioners four options:
- remove the entire building
- keep two walls and demolish the rest of the building
- do a minimal stabilization and reopen the building as soon as possible
- do a full restoration
On April 27, the Gainesville City Commission chose the option to demolish the building, while retaining two exterior walls.
Funding for these options comes out of Wild Spaces/Public Places money, not part of the city budget. However, after construction, two new staff people will be needed to operate the new, larger building. Yet, the City is going through a hiring freeze and laying off employees in order to reduce the budget.
On Sept. 21, the City Commission was to choose the architectural firm to design the new building. However, citizens had been writing to the Commissioners and several showed up at the meeting to speak against the demolition of the building.
Many spoke against the selection of the architect because the firm had little experience with historic preservation. Several speakers noted that they didn’t have enough information about the four options, and asked for another community meeting where they could learn more information about the proposed options.
The date for the meeting with the community and Wild Spaces/Public Places staff has not been decided as of press time. The strongest possibility is that the meeting will be on Tuesday, Oct. 17, at the Thomas Center, at 6pm. This is subject to change. For up to date information please see https://friendsofthelmaboltincenter.org/
The City Commission will review the options and vote on the path forward for the future of the eighty-year-old State Historic Site on Nov. 2.