The significance of the Thelma Boltin Recreation Center

A State Heritage Site and a Contributing Building to a National Register of Historic Places Historic District, it should not be demolished.

by Friends of the Thelma Boltin Center

The Servicemen’s Center was built in 1943 during World War II. It is the only building in the State of Florida specifically built for WWII soldiers to socialize and relax. Soldiers hitchhiked from Camp Blanding, Jacksonville, Orlando, and other cities to arrive in Gainesville, pop. 14,000.

In July of 1943 11,000 men were reported as having used the Center. Non-profits and churches prepared home cooked meals for the men, local groups provided entertainment, and soldiers spent the night in homes, or other facilities. WRUF broadcasts of dances could be heard in north Florida and Georgia.

The Thelma Boltin Recreation Center is one of a few buildings in the City named after a woman. Thelma Boltin never married or had children. This building is her legacy. She was the Program Director and hostess for the events at the Serviceman’s Center. When the War ended she became the Recreation Director for the City of Gainesville at this site.

She was a founder of the Folk Festival at White Springs Florida. She was an English and Drama teacher at Gainesville High, and founded what is now the Gainesville Community Playhouse. She had a weekly segment about Florida Folklore called “Story Hour” on WGGG, which was heard by audiences across Florida and other states.  She gave performances as “Cousin Thelma” at children’s schools in central and north Florida and in Georgia.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Musicians. As Recreation Director Thelma Boltin organized a youth club called “Teen Time.” She booked local groups, some of which were made up of future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame musicians such as Stephen Stills, Bernie Leadon and Don Feldner. Tom Petty attended the dances to listen to these musicians.

The significance of the east wing. In 1942 the Gainesville City Commission insisted that the Serviceman’s Center be built with the wing in a unanimous resolution to the Federal Works Agency that stated that the Standard Type D Federal Recreation building was not harmonious with the neighborhood. Two volunteer Gainesville architects designed plans for the present building. The City won their case, and the Serviceman’s Center was built with the wing and an auditorium.

Every photograph taken in the 1940s and 1950s depicts the wing. There are no photos that show the auditorium directly, while there are postcards that depict the back of the wing, it was considered that important. The wing was the first view that soldiers saw when they arrived in Gainesville. It meant relaxation, recreation, and feeling like they were home. The 80-year-old barbecue still stands in the back of the building, as do the shuffleboards courts.

Once the building is renovated it can include a museum exhibit similar to the one at the Thomas Center. Some of the materials that are available are Thelma Boltin’s journals from 1928 and 1932, an autographed album from the 1970 White Springs Folk Festival, a page of eighty-year-old stationary in perfect condition, among other artifacts. There are many postcards from the 1940s available to display. Additionally, photos of Thelma Boltin, and the rock musicians who became internationally known rock stars should be in the exhibit.

Wild Spaces/Public Places money. A full restoration can be funded by the allocated $5.6 million in funding. If additional money is needed a Preservation grant was available for $500,000, and the County Commission may help. Wild Spaces/Public Places funding does not come out of the City’s budget. It funded by all tax payers to to operate parks or recreational programs, and reconstruct or improve public facilities.

The Friends of the Thelma Boltin Rec. Center, a group of people who want the building saved, are raising pledges to help with authentic period appropriate furnishings, plantings and the museum. Joining

the Friends group is free, no donations are required, just an interest in preserving Gainesville history,

The City Commissioners voted to demolish the The Thelma Boltin Rec. Center even though it is a contributing building to a National Register Historic District and a State Heritage Site. They plan to build a new bigger building that will retain two exterior walls. They are calling this option a “partial restoration, or a hybrid restoration.” However, this is not a restoration by any definition.

The new building would be 11,000 to 12,000 SF. This is too big for the lot, the neighborhood, and especially for the small parking lot. If the present building is restored some of the square footage that was intended to be allocated here can be used for the proposed East Gainesville Cultural Center. If the new, larger building is built, it will require two staff people, yet the City is laying off employees and there is a hiring freeze.

The restored Thelma Boltin Rec. Center would be a bookend to the Thomas Center and add another museum on the route of the proposed green-way, starting with the Cotton Club and the Matheson on south side of University Avenue. The Thelma Boltin Rec. Center would be the linchpin prior to the final museum at the Thomas Center.

It is 80-years-old and does have some structural problems, but that can be fixed. Money has to be spent to preserve Gainesville’s character, history and unique architecture. If the building is demolished there are no other buildings in the State built for WWII soldiers to rest, relax and socialize.

Many emails have been sent to the City and County Commissioners asking that the Thelma Boltin Recreation Center be saved, but they have not rescinded their vote. More emails need to be sent, and people need to attend the September 21st City Commission meeting to ask that the building be saved.

Please help by joining the Friends of the Thelma Boltin Rec. Center, writing to the City Commissioners, and attending their meeting on September 21st, so we don’t lose another Gainesville landmark. See more at

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