A City’s History, Told by Two Buildings

Millionaire boom-town Chicago builder George Clark built The Casino in 1915. His descendants sold it to Massachusetts newspaper magnate William Dwight, whose widow sold it to the city in 1949. Cracker-style buildings are fairly common in Florida, but public buildings in the vernacular architectural style are exceedingly rare. They are about to get rarer by one. City officials plan to demolish The Casino to make way for the new "City Center" project.

Millionaire boom-town Chicago builder George Clark built The Casino in 1915. His descendants sold it to Massachusetts newspaper magnate William Dwight, whose widow sold it to the city in 1949. Cracker-style buildings are fairly common in Florida, but public buildings in the vernacular architectural style are exceedingly rare. They are about to get rarer by one. City officials plan to demolish The Casino to make way for the new “City Center” project.

 

Fruitland Park — The struggle between progress and preservation in Fruitland Park comes down to a story of two buildings uniquely joined in a city that desperately wants to end a lengthy spiral of acrimony and forge a progressive new identity for itself.

One building, a beloved Cracker-style meeting hall erected by a boom-town Chicago millionaire a century ago “for the purpose of affording citizens of Fruitland Park…greater opportunity for amusement, entertainment and social intercourse…”, is scheduled for the wrecking ball despite frantic efforts of local historians, including the Fruitland Park Historical Society.

The Casino gave birth to at least six Fruitland Park churches, including two of its largest, innumerable social clubs and even the city itself.

On December 16, 1925, after three years of debate and “agitation,” more than 100 residents crammed into the 3,000-square foot auditorium and voted unanimously to incorporate the Town of Fruitland Park.

The earliest written history of the city began as a “Casino Night” storytelling session, calmly narrated on a Thursday evening a hundred years ago before an audience of more than 60 local residents.

A week later William G. Dwight’s spoken essay, “What 41 Years Have Done For One Corner of Lake County, Told in a Log,” was chronicled in the Leesburg Commercial.

The Dwight estate at 200 Rose Ave., built in 1917, has a new future in store as Rose Plantation, an upscale steak house diagonally across from the city's new "City Center" project and the soon-to-be-former site of the century-old Casino Community Center, a much beloved local landmark.

The Dwight estate at 200 Rose Ave., built in 1917, has a new future in store as Rose Plantation, an upscale steak house diagonally across from the city’s new “City Center” project and the soon-to-be-former site of the century-old Casino Community Center, a much beloved local landmark.

The second building, a magnificent winter estate on Fountain Lake, was built by that same journalist, the scion of an aristocratic Massachusetts publishing family. For more than two decades, the Dwight estate served as the center of Fruitland Park society.

The Dwights hosted annual Christmas soirees, a Halloween masked ball, an annual tennis tournament and innumerable parties for a pair of socialite daughters whose romantic exploits at the end of the Edwardian era were the local media events of their day.

The Dwight estate, built a year after the Casino, may have a much brighter future repurposed as a fashionable lakefront restaurant, a future more in keeping with its past.

Villages resident and former restaurant owner John Gibson wants the city to okay his plans—rezoning the estate to commercial status—before he starts remodeling work. The city’s Planning and Zoning Board approved the plan last week. The city commission will take it up Thursday evening, and could give the restaurant a final go-ahead as early as its August 13 meeting.

A century ago, the Dwights owned both the estate and The Casino.

They sold the Casino to the city. The two buildings sit diagonally across Rose Avenue from each other, an irony of location that signals the destruction of one and the rebirth of the other.

The Casino stands in the way of the Fruitland Park’s “City Center” project next door to City Hall.

Unofficially, City Center plans include a new 12,000 square foot library and a park for concerts and fairs, with expanded public safety facilities next door to City Hall. The project will take up the entire block.

Over the past 20 years, the city has spent more than $500,000 buying up houses that line Fountain Street behind City Hall. Nine months ago they closed on the last one to complete ownership of the City Center block.

Officially, the city’s plans do not include the 100-year old Casino, erected in 1915 on the southwest corner of City Center and deeded to the Town of Fruitland Park in 1949.

Just 1.38 miles to the west, 2,050 new homes are planned for 4,000 new city residents expected to move in before the next elections in 2016.

Streets in the Villages of Fruitland Park are paved, utilities installed and more than 200 houses have been built already. The first new city residents have already moved in.

This time next year, newcomers will constitute nearly half the city’s population and a majority of its voters.

That means millions in new city revenues.

City officials want use some of that cash to forge its new image. For many residents, that can’t happen any sooner.

Since 1995, Fruitland Park has lost half its police force and three police chiefs, a half-dozen city managers, three city commissioners, well over a million dollars in legal settlements and steady turnover in top city positions.

Two longtime commissioners lost their seats eight months ago in historic landslides.

A professional city manager, promising new police chief, two bright new commissioners, a new sewer deal with Lady Lake and newly-paved Berckman Street—the city’s main thoroughfare—are big steps forward.

But the finish line is the “City Center” project.

For most city voters and half the city’s residents, the only practical way to venture outside the walled Villages of Fruitland Park to visit the seat of their new city government—and City Center—is to drive east 1.38 miles to Rose Avenue, then turn right two blocks.

That will take them right past the Dwight estate, which Gibson hopes to rename Rose Plantation. The new gateway into the city will serve half the city’s residents.

While “old” Fruitland Park eyes its newcomer majority warily, city government is turning to face its new constituency.

One element of the City Center plan expands the city’s fire facilities so that emergency vehicles can exit onto Fountain Street instead of Berckman Street.

That iconic accident will undoubtedly reprise itself several times over as Fruitland Park struggles to reinvent itself.

2 Responses to A City’s History, Told by Two Buildings

  1. Allan Reply

    July 26, 2015 at 12:32 pm

    I do not beleive in what Gibson is trying to do. Renovate the estate to a resturant,an up -scale one. The people in Fruitland cannot afford to eat at up-scale places. I do not understand what the Villages is trying to do? Do they want to own everything and try to run everything? I lived here for the past 35 years. Never seen such a thing. Trying to take over Fruitland Park.

  2. FruitlandParkNews.org Reply

    July 26, 2015 at 3:11 pm

    Gibson is about to wager about $1 million, all told, that what he’s trying to do is real.

    Most Fruitland Park residents can’t afford to eat in an upscale restaurant on a regular basis (though Fruitland Park Cafe is affordable!).

    But Fruitland Park is changing. This time next year the city’s population will be double what it is today, making it Lake County’s sixth largest city (Clermont, Leesburg, Eustis, Mount Dora and Lady Lake are larger).

    Proportionately, the newcomers are older, wealthier and better-educated than “Old” Fruitland Park, and Mr. Gibson is gambling that many of them will want to break out of their walled city to visit “Old” FP and his upscale steak house.

    City government is betting the same thing, that’s why City Center is under way.

    Not saying this is a good thing, just saying it’s a thing, it’s happening, and we might as well learn to cope with it.

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