At a recent West Volusia Historical Society panel discussion, a senior city planner joined the team behind the restoration of the J.W. Wright Building to explain the importance of preserving some of DeLand’s lesser-known historic gems.
Belinda Williams-Collins, who also serves as DeLand’s historic-preservation coordinator, joined Greater Union Life Center Executive Director Mario Davis and project manager Mark Shuttleworth, owner of Florida Victorian Architectural Antiques, for a discussion in late February at the society’s Conrad Research Center.
The Wright Building, which sits on the corner of West Voorhis and South Clara avenues in DeLand, is in the process of being restored and converted into a nexus for community services and business development in southwestern DeLand.
The project is being spearheaded by the Greater Union Life Center, a charitable arm of Greater Union First Baptist Church, which sits across the street from the Wright Building.
The brick building, built in 1920, once anchored a thriving African American business district. Davis and Shuttleworth explained to the capacity crowd at the Conrad Center how the church acquired the deteriorating building in a 2016 tax-deed sale.
The building may soon anchor a new historic district in southwestern DeLand.
“The primary goal of purchasing the Wright Building initially was just to preserve it. It’s rich and history and ties directly in with our church, which sits directly across the street from the structure,” Davis said. “I must admit … when we first got the building, we won it from a tax deed, and we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.”
He went on to say that it was only with the encouragement of some high-profile members of the Greater Union flock that the group decided to move forward with the restoration.
“We had esteemed leaders like Ms. Joyce Cusack, who is a member of our church, who was adamant that we move forward with the purchase and revitalization of this building,” Davis said.
“As Mark [Shuttleworth] indicated, several people told us in the beginning that it could not be done, it wouldn’t be recommended to be done, and that we should move forward with creating something very unique, like a parking lot,” he added, to some laughs.
Fast-forward four years, and much work has already been done on the building. The structure was stabilized, and recent grants have enabled the group to install a state-of-the-art membrane roof on the building.
The project received a $20,000 grant from the city’s Downtown Community Redevelopment Agency last December, and a $100,000 grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation last July.
Davis said through the expertise of Shuttleworth and others tapped to work on the project, including architect Jerry Mills and contractor Rick Basso, the group has been able to keep costs down.
“For stabilization, we estimated it to be $500,000, and I think we came in $300,000 shy of that, based on their strategic moves on the building,” he said. “Even for me to go into the building just recently almost brought me to tears, because I remember looking at the building and being in awe of the progress that has been made and how close we are to finishing the building.”
Not all historic-preservation projects are as lucky in getting grants, planner Williams-Collins noted.
“As the historic-preservation coordinator … we get all kinds of applications to do things to historic buildings. … There are ones where property owners come in and ask if we have money available for renovations and things, and sadly, no, we don’t really have any money,” she said. “So … when this one got the award from the National Trust, it was a great day.”
DeLand’s Downtown Community Redevel-opment Agency has a small pot of grant money, usually $20,000, which it parcels out each year, but beyond that, there aren’t many city resources available to restore historic properties.
DeLand currently has four historic districts: its Downtown area, the Stetson campus, the Garden District, and the Northwest Historic District.
Williams-Collins said her experience in learning about the Wright Building’s renovation has led her to look closer at historically black southwest DeLand, and ponder another historic district there.
“We have four historic districts, and I think there’s enough desire to have another district, and at some point I hope we can start to look at establishing another historic district, and including the Wright Building in that,” she said.
Such a move would have to be approved by the DeLand City Commission.
Sometimes, Williams-Collins learns about buildings when demolition permits for structures over 50 years old land on her desk. In one instance last year, she received an application to demolish a home at 327 S. Delaware Ave.
“In talking with Mark, we determined that this was a significant building. It was Dr. [Samuel] Poole’s house, and Dr. Poole was the first black dentist here in DeLand,” she said.
She said upon finding out, the property owner decided to work with city officials and has expressed an interest in saving, rather than demolishing, the historic home.
In all, the plan for the Wright Building includes having the first floor include space for a black history exhibit, as well as offices for nonprofit organizations serving the community.
The second floor would be an incubator of sorts for businesses and nonprofits just getting off the ground.
Greater Union is also setting an ambitious schedule to get the building up and running.
“As the executive director of an organization, you always set aggressive timelines, and you hold those working with you accountable,” Davis said, to some chuckles. “Mark will have that building done by the end of this year.”