BY ELI WITEK
As the world has turned around it, the Dutton House, at 332 W. New York Ave. in DeLand, has remained remarkably unchanged.
Built in 1911 by a wealthy lumber magnate, the sprawling mansion is an estimated 11,000 square feet. It has long been considered one of the finest examples of neoclassical architecture in Florida. Now, it’s one of the last of its kind in the state.
Throughout its life as a home, a funeral parlor and, later, an apartment building, few alterations to original architectural features were made. The building still has its original full Corinthian columns, coffered ceilings and brick fireplace, among other features.
But while the elegance of the Dutton House makes it increasingly rare, it’s also a building out of its time — a large, fine old home, exemplifying a different era, now bracketed by a commercial brick wall and an auto-repair shop.
In recent years, the Dutton House has been stuck in more ways than one — in time, in place, and in financial limbo. Its only visitors have been the occasional trespassers and stray birds.
That is, until May 26, when the members of the Volusia County ECHO Advisory Committee stopped by for a quick tour. ECHO is the county’s tax-funded program to provide grants for “environmental, cultural, historic and outdoors” projects. The Advisory Committee is charged with recommending how the county spends the approximately $7 million per year in available funds.
The Dutton House has long been an item of old business on ECHO meeting agendas, and the recent visit coincided with new urgency to resolve the matter of a 2006 grant for $234,800 that was awarded to the nonprofit Dutton House Inc., which owns the mansion.
ECHO requires that grant money be repaid if the project does not fulfill its intended use as a public space. The Dutton House, which currently has no wiring or plumbing, never has.
At the tour, Dutton House Inc. President Dagny Robertson announced that an anonymous donor has agreed to pay back the full amount of the 2006 ECHO grant.
The Volusia County Council will vote June 21 on whether to accept the Advisory Committee’s unanimous recommendation that the $234,800 repayment be accepted.
That would free the Dutton House project from the requirements of the ECHO grant, and open up new possibilities — including private ownership — for achieving what has always been the goal: saving the house.
Even without the restrictions of the grant, however, the full restoration of the house may prove too expensive for any investor. That has been the case so far, according to Robertson.
White elephant: a possession that its owner cannot dispose of, and whose cost, particularly that of maintenance, is out of proportion to its usefulness.
Story of the Dutton
The Dutton House’s current limbo is not unlike that of 30 years ago.
In 1990, the bank repossessed the house from its former owners, who ran it as an apartment building. The city condemned the home because of numerous code violations, and the apartment dwellers had to leave.
For nearly two years, the bank attempted to sell the property for $149,000, but had no takers. Finally, they decided to demolish the building, but outcry from the community was fierce.
The bank was repeatedly blocked temporarily by the DeLand City Commission. Finally, at an emergency meeting, commissioners passed a 60-day emergency historic preservation ordinance, preventing demolition of the Dutton House.
Ultimately, the city’s Historic Preservation ordinance was made permanent, the Historic Preservation Board was established, and the Dutton House was protected indefinitely.
The threat to the historic home also established Historic DeLand Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to historical preservation, that would take over the restoration of the home with backing from the city in 1995 after a private owner — who had purchased it at discount from the bank — fell ill.
Historic DeLand Inc. secured numerous state grants to help with restoration, totaling about $600,000 over 10 years. The project eventually stalled, and the organization was dismantled.
In 2005, a new board, Dutton House Inc., took over. With help from the city, and using money left over from previous grants and with new funds raised (including through such as an annual Bavarian Beer Fest), the organization was able to provide the required matching funds to secure a 2006 ECHO grant for $234,800, along with a state grant in the amount of $350,000.
But by 2008, the Great Recession was upon us. The bottom fell out of the housing market, and the Dutton House was frozen mid-restoration. Work on the exterior had been mostly completed — protecting the building — but there was only an intact shell inside.
Until recently, an algae-covered sign prominently displayed on the front lawn optimistically announced that the ECHO-funded restoration would be completed by 2007.
All told, about $1.1 million in state and county grant money had been put into the building.
In the 15 years since 2007, the Dutton House has been a glaring example of when Volusia County’s ECHO program does not work as intended.
The grant program, funded by a quarter-mill ad valorem property tax, has helped pay for some 232 projects since 2000. In 2020, county residents overwhelmingly voted to extend ECHO for another 20 years.
But while the ECHO program has had many high-profile success stories — including the African American Museum of the Arts and the Athens Theatre both in DeLand, the Jackie Robinson Ballpark in Daytona Beach (to name a few) and at least 60 miles of trails — there have been problems.
It was only in 2016, for example, that Volusia County began a monitoring program for closed grants, to ensure that the projects were fulfilling their intended use. If they were not, the ECHO grant money would potentially have to be paid back to the county, or the grant recipient might petition for a change in scope from the project’s original purpose.
A change in scope is not without precedent. Some existing ECHO projects, intended to be entirely for public use, have morphed into mixes of private and public space, which critics have argued is a dilution of the purpose of ECHO and a waste of tax dollars.
Among the handful of projects that were identified from the monitoring and that have consistently shown up in internal audits, is the Dutton House.
“I think this is a really great example of the challenges associated with historical restoration and preservation,” ECHO Advisory Committee Member (and former director of planning for the Volusia County School Board) Saralee Morrissey said.
News of the surprise anonymous donation comes after a proposal for a public-private mix for the Dutton House was abandoned. That proposal, by DeLand Opportunity Fund LLC, an investment group headed by DeLand Realtor Solomon Greene (who was also a former Dutton House Inc. member), was scuttled after public criticism at an April 14 ECHO Advisory Committee meeting.
The DeLand Opportunity Fund plan would have changed the scope to make only the first floor open to the public. Critics were unsettled by the idea of private investors profiting off of the house.
Robertson rejected the arguments that a private owner would be capitalizing on a lucrative and taxpayer-funded investment.
“The board has been approached by numerous individuals and organizations that have shown an interest in seeing the project through to completion,” Robertson wrote in a statement to the ECHO Advisory Committee. “On each occasion, excitement quickly turned to disappointment when the other party backed out and decided that the project was either too overwhelming or simply not financially feasible.”
She concluded, “The cost to restore the Dutton House to usable condition will likely exceed the value of the finished product.”
At the conclusion of the May 26 tour and meeting, when committee members unanimously voted to accept full repayment of the grant by the anonymous donor, committee members wished Robertson well on future restoration efforts.
“Perhaps you’ll be back in front of us asking for another grant, and if that’s the case, I’d be very interested in it,” ECHO Advisory Committee Jack Surrette said, after a unanimous vote to accept the repayment.
“That will never happen,” Robertson replied.
What could the Dutton House be?
Unlike other DeLand restoration projects, like the Athens Theatre or the Putnam Hotel, what the Dutton House could even be used for is unclear. Both the theater and the hotel were built as businesses designed to be open to the public, while the Dutton House was built to be a home.
At the time of the ECHO-grant award, the idea was that the first floor could serve as a museum and event space, while the second floor might have classrooms or gallery space.
But in 2008, the estimated cost of the remaining renovations was $600,000 — and more if the project adhered to stringent codes required for public-use buildings. By now, with construction prices on an astronomical rise, the estimate to complete the renovations is between $1.5 and $2 million, according to Robertson.
If the Dutton House is ultimately sold to a private owner, that owner will not be allowed to demolish it, Robertson said.
“I will include that it can’t be torn down. Because that’s the point— it’s a historic home, one of the last of its kind, and all that tax money that has been spent would be wasted,” Robertson said. “There’s already so much into it — and the point of all of this has been to restore it.”
The ideas have been many, but the solutions few, according to Robertson.
“People call all the time with ideas, and I follow up with every single one,” Robertson said.
The Dutton House has been pitched to singer-songwriter and painter John Mellencamp and HGTV star Nicole Curtis, who hosted Rehab Addict, a popular show on restoring old homes.
For years, prospective deals, private and public, have come and gone. Every handful of years, interest would prompt new ideas, and new newspaper articles, but the financial difficulties are myriad.
On a recent visit, an informational flyer from a previous fundraiser explaining the history of the building, and offering naming rights for various rooms for generous donors, was propped on an old piano that was donated years ago. Construction materials still lay on sawhorses, and in the attic, a bucket of nails was tipped over.
Future of the Dutton
This isn’t the first time people have questioned whether the historic home can be saved.
“People are trying to prolong indefinitely what may have to be done,” a bank spokesman is quoted as saying in a 1991 DeLand Sun News article.
The investment needed to turn the Dutton House into something — and what that something is is far from clear, although office spaces and a bed-and-breakfast have been floated — is incredibly steep.
And, in this era, the lumber magnates and multimillion-dollar philanthropists of the past are gone.
One of the constants in the story of the Dutton House, though, along with the house itself, is the people who care about its preservation.
“DeLand is what it is now because someone said we have to stop tearing down our historic buildings,” Robertson said. “Parts of our history have disappeared, and the Dutton House is one of the last of its kind in Florida.”
Meanwhile, the house sits, unoccupied and unchanging, as the city passes by.
The Dutton House grant repayment will come before the Volusia County Council at a regularly scheduled meeting at 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, June 21, in the Thomas C. Kelly Administration Center, County Council Chambers, 123 W. Indiana Ave. in DeLand.