I have to question whether DeLand has any real commitment at all to the concept of historic preservation.
I wonder how many of us are fully cognizant that it is the genuine, unmanufactured, eclectic, mismatched, old-and-repurposed nature of our Downtown DeLand that draws the tourists and new residents who continue to help our town grow, succeed and gain fame.
Some time ago, when we were ignorant, historic buildings came down willy-nilly. Grand Victorian homes all over town fell to make way for strip shopping centers and other buildings that promised greater profit.
Time passed, and we realized what we were losing. On paper, anyway, we said we cared. We spent plenty of public money establishing the infrastructure of preservation at City Hall. But our historic structures kept getting in the way.
Stover Theatre came down, and Stetson Hall. Stetson University just got permission to take down another three historic homes on Bert Fish Drive. The Historic Preservation Board said no, but the City Commission said yes. Done.
The old City Hall is gone; the 1960s Old Jail is apparently doomed. Easy-peasy; let it go. A new building will be pretty — and cheaper — don’t you know?
Now, the one that really matters. The grand dame of historic icons.
The Hotel Putnam doesn’t belong only to the company whose name is on the deed for 225 W. New York Ave. in Downtown DeLand. The Putnam belongs to DeLand, to all of us, a masonry citadel calling us back through the decades with a mere glance at its once-dignified facade.
It was discovered by winter visitors who put DeLand on maps consulted by weary Northerners seeking escape from the cold and snow. Its grand lobby long housed DeLand’s exhibit at a 1930s World’s Fair. Civic-group meetings happened there. High-school proms in the 1940s.
The seeds of our now-flourishing and Central Florida-famous music scene were planted in the Cypress Room in the 1970s and in the Amber Inn in the 1980s. A dangerous and difficult — but not historically unimportant — period played out in the American Room in the 1980s.
This is our history. This is the building where it all happened. Preserving the Putnam is the heart and soul of historic preservation.
The city spent some resources and time not too long ago on a campaign styled “You are DeLand.” There were stickers and places for photos.
The Hotel Putnam is DeLand. Good, bad, ugly — 100 years of mostly progress passed through its halls, and up and down its stairs.
But damage in the name of progress has happened. Sickening damage to one wall on the east wing of the grand dame, where sand bricks likely manufactured in Lake Helen are cascading down, leaving frightening cracks in their wake.
We’ll leave it to the experts to speak to why and how.
But we will not sit quietly while the owners and city officials shrug their shoulders and treat this as a perfect excuse for complete demolition.
If DeLand were committed to historic preservation, city officials would pause, accept a request for full demolition, and then say a resounding and committed “no.”
I’ll supply the wording: “You bought what is undoubtedly one of DeLand’s most historic structures. That comes with a large measure of responsibility, and you should have known it. Stuff happened, and it is damaged. You want to tear it down. The answer is no. Fix it.”
Instead, city officials have told The Beacon they are ready to fast-track a full demolition. The permit could be approved by the time you read this.
If DeLand were committed to historic preservation, this wouldn’t have happened in the first place. City officials would have required a full engineering plan, assessment and sign-off on all demolition activities that were planned, and then would have kept a close watch on what was going on across the street from City Hall.
The wrecking ball is swinging, and the sirens of a modern replacement are singing from the shore, luring us to believe it can be OK. We can build a modern replacement that honors the legacy of the Hotel Putnam.
No. It’s not OK. Here is the line in the sand.
If we cannot get this done, the die is cast, and the truth is exposed. DeLand is merely a town pretending it cares about historic preservation, while caving to any and all whims of capitalistic profit.
That’s not us. At least, I hope that’s not us.
Historic buildings are inconvenient. They can be expensive. Their adaptive reuse requires creativity and ingenuity, and sometimes governmental help.
All of this is why, if DeLand wants to be a city that hangs its hat on its history, the city needs to determine exactly how these buildings can be preserved, protected and kept in profitable use.
We obviously haven’t figured it out yet.
— Shepherd is publisher of The Beacon, and president of the corporation that owns four 100-year-old sand-brick buildings a block east of the Hotel Putnam.