DEMOLITION vs. DELIVERANCE
Owners weigh whether to save or raze historic buildings
Church Street Exchange, Grand Avenue Elementary and the former home of the Orlando Ballet are the latest Orlando landmarks to face the prospect of new identities instead of demolition.
The fate of those buildings comes into play as some developers and owners are looking at “adaptive reuse,” a movement gaining momentum nationally.
“I think people are finally realizing that these kind of place-making buildings, you really can’t re-create,” said Richard Forbes, historic preservation officer for Orlando.
Sitting atop some of the most valuable land in Central Florida, the Church Street Exchange in downtown Orlando was recently listed for sale. Grand Avenue Elementary southwest of downtown sits vacant with school officials discussing its fate. And the Orlando Utilities Commission has started weighing options to sell or renovate an Italian Palazzo Revival-style 1920s power plant and one-time arts center overlooking Lake Ivanhoe.
The fate of the Church Street Exchange, the OUC building and Grand Avenue are likely to remain uncertain for coming months as their owners weigh options. This year, the OUC studied regulatory steps required to renovate its building on Lake Ivanhoe, which is a historic landmark, and expects to
make a decision on its fate as soon as this year, a spokesman said.
Orlando officials are concerned that the Grand Avenue school, which is also a landmark, could be demolished, but school district officials say it could be part of a land swap with the city. The utility-owned building and the school are both somewhat protected as historic landmarks. The exchange building, which most recently housed tech startups, has a late 19th Century look, but was built in the 1980s and sits just outside a historic district, Forbes said.
Beyond preserving the charm and character of a building, reused buildings help ignite nearby neighborhoods, said Orlando attorney Kimberly Ashby. She pointed to the former Orange County Courthouse’s renovation as a history museum and the relocation of the Casa Feliz and Capen houses to become cultural venues in Winter Park.
“It not only repurposes the building, it repurposes the neighborhood and the whole community,” she said.
Across Orange Avenue from the Chase Plaza building, a Walgreens recently opened in what had been the 1920s-era First National Bank building. Next to a downtown Orlando SunRail station, the Ace Cafe vintage motorcycle venue recently debuted in the former building-supply shop owned by Harry P. Leu, namesake of Leu Gardens. And McRae Art Studios recently opened in the old McNamara Pontiac paint and body shop off West Colonial Drive.
Artist Robert Ross said McRae Studios’ relocation from Winter Park to the body shop in north Parramore has added some authenticity to the arts scene.
“This building, I love it. They kept a lot of the things in here that looked like a carrepair place — huge roll-gate doors that are made up of 20 panes,” the artist said. “It looks so beautiful, I’ve done two paintings just looking through it. They left the ceiling with ductwork hanging there and the floor is the concrete that was here before.”
Forbes pointed to the recent reclamation of an old Orlando church, at 331 Cathcart Ave. It had been considered for demolition by the Catholic Diocese until a developer purchased it and transformed it into Samsara luxury townhomes. Near Orlando City Hall, Aloft Hotel repurposed former OUC offices near Orlando City Hall in 2013 rather than building anew. Another often-cited reuse project is developer John Rife’s twist on an old Baptist Church near Baldwin Park. He repurposed it as a collection of retailers known as East End Market.
But reclamation doesn’t fit everyone’s budget.
“There is a surprise around every turn. Those “‘uh, oh’” moments just add to the bottom line. The return on investment has to be that, by saving it, you are creating some value to the consumer,” Rife said. “There’s so little architectural history that, what little we have, we have to hold onto.”
Ace Cafe owner Mark McKee said he saw few retro-style buildings with character when he was scouting Orlando locations a few years ago. Finding the old Leu building was a fluke, he said.
Transforming the longneglected structure into a destination cafe cost substantially more and took about twice as long as it would have taken to build, he said.
City officials said one of the buildings on the property collapsed, further slowing the process. “For us, it was doing it in a way that was true to our brand. And we are in it for the long term and we believe our guests appreciate what we’ve done,” McKee said. “Anybody can build a new stucco building.”
Preservation is sometimes impossible, said Rob Nunziata, chief executive officer of FBC Mortgage.
He was part of the group that purchased and renovated the upper levels of the old bank building at Church Street and Orange Avenue, now home to Walgreens.
“I love downtown. I’ve lived and worked here forever. You understand it’s a great place to live, but a lot of developers don’t want to deal with the parking constraints and vagrants. And to try to take old buildings and renovate to today’s standards is asking a lot,” he said. “At some point, buildings have a functional obsolescence. For a downtown, you need a mix of both — old and new.”
AFTER: Ace Café, a hub for vintage-motorcycle and custom-car events, opened in the Leu building.
BEFORE: Local businessman and civic leader Harry P. Leu owned this hardware and building supply shop.
AFTER: In 2017, a Walgreens store moved into the four-story building that once housed the downtown bank.
BEFORE: The First National Bank building was designed by Orlando architect Howard M. Reynolds during the Great Depression.
AFTER: In 2013, the East End Market — in the building that formerly housed the church — opened in Orlando’s Audubon Park neighborhood, offering local culinary delights.
BEFORE: The former Corrine Drive Baptist Church was listed in a November 2007 ad in the Orlando Sentinel as “a step back in time to a church that still preaches the old-time gospel.”
AFTER: In 2014, the exchange building became a hub for technology companies, but recently went up for sale.
BEFORE: The Church Street Exchange Building, shown here in the 1980s, once attracted droves of theme park tourists.