A gem of a place

The Thomas Center is a Mediterranean Revival-style structure full of history as well as city offices, period rooms, exhibit space, banquet rooms, performance halls and meeting rooms.

AARON DAYE/Gainesville Guardian
Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2005 at 3:32 p.m.
The Thomas Center is a hidden gem in northeast Gainesville that is full of history and activity.
Lemuel Moore has served as director of the Thomas Center for 25 years. But the building itself dates back to the 1900s.
The Mediterranean Revival style structure located at 302 NE 6th Ave. was built as a private home. The owner died before its completion and the home and the completion of construction was taken over by Major William R. Thomas.
It served as a residence for Thomas, his wife and five children. After the children grew up and moved out, the structure became one of the first resort hotels in the city of Gainesville, converted into 94 guest rooms, three dining rooms, and four lounges. It was a tourist attraction and main location for events for about 40 years.
The facility also later served as a campus for Sante Fe Community College for about seven years while its northwest Gainesville location was being constructed.
After years of use the Thomas Center began to show deterioration, and that's when area neighbors came to the rescue. They would later become known as the Thomas Center Associates.
The facility was brought back to its former glory by residents of the Duckpond neighborhood in 1972. According to Moore, they applied for grants, and single-handedly raised funding to restore the building. This action also included the site being named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 and purchased by the city of Gainesville in 1974.
Today, the Thomas Center is restored and contains art galleries and many areas available for renting such as the Spanish Court and Long Gallery - most often used for weddings and receptions. The center contains the Grace and Sidney Knight Children's Theatre. There are 1920s period rooms that have been restored using photographs as a guide to replicate artifacts and the design of rooms when Major William R. Thomas lived there.
According to Moore, the facility has docents and holds tours. Third graders from around the county regularly visit and Thomas said they are hoping to expand tours to other grade levels.
Rie Burton, coordinator of interpretive programs, said she became a member of the Thomas Center Associates' board about 20 years ago, when the programs now being offered were just beginning. She also serves as a docent.
"The Alachua County School Board suggested the program be geared to third grade students because it fits in with their curriculum that studies the local community. It's good for the kids. What better way for them to be more connected to their community, so they can feel they are more a part of it," Burton said.
All third grade classes in the county are invited to participate, and the number of tours has grown over the years by word of mouth from teachers in the county.
Burton also helps locate items for the 1920s period rooms at the Thomas Center. She and other board members visit antique shows and antique stores looking for pieces from that era.
"I love the few pieces we have that are from the original home. Many of the things were auctioned away when the building was sold after serving as Hotel Thomas, but some pieces have been recovered," Burton said.
Burton continued, "Sometimes we receive phone calls about pieces that people want to give us, and we also ask for certain period items in our newsletter to Thomas Center Associates."
Housed in the Thomas Center is the city of Gainesville Department of Cultural Affairs, which reaches out to multicultural groups and offers cosponsorship by helping them bear the cost of attracting concerts and exhibitions.
Overseen by the Thomas Center is the Wilhelmina Johnson Center at 321 NW 10th St., the Tench Building on 115 South Main St. and the Downtown Plaza.
The city's department handles yearly events such as the Downtown Festival and Arts Show and the Hoggetowne Medieval Faire.
Also, the Thomas Center seeks state grants for use in the community through facilities they operate, with a goal to enhance the city culturally. One such funded activity is the ArtsReach program, which showcases the work of local artists in buildings such as City Hall.
Activities held at the Downtown Plaza also help pump funds back into the community, he added.
Moore said he can remember the Thomas Center's annual operating budget was less than $40,000, and now that figure is well over a million dollars, with the facility generating about $800,000 to $900,000 in revenue annually.
"The department itself has grown. We now have a staff of about 17. All of this is a significant achievement. In the spring we are booked up to a year in advance. Everything here has grown from zero," Moore said.
The facility itself is abuzz with activity.
The Thomas Center Gallery's showplace for artwork is now featuring Visual Rhythms: Artwork Inspired by Music.
Organizations such as the Independent Music Teachers Association meet there, and the facility is open to other non-profit cultural groups to meet there as well.
Gale Ford, a member of the board of the Thomas Center Associates, said the facility has been the site of about 800 weddings.
Ford has been in charge of the gardens and maintenance of the facility for nine years. He currently is involved in plans that will revamp the landscape of the Thomas Center one portion at a time, allowing fund-raising to be done in small increments to pay for the cost of landscaping. He is also involved in a project that will restore parts of the Thomas Center to it's original color scheme.
"I think it's important the Thomas Center be preserved because it's in a historic district. It gives the center its place in history," Ford said.
Moore said the center operates grant programs for non-profits groups that are culturally related. He emphasized the importance of public participation in activities offered at the facility such as outreach programs, performances held there and lectures.
"We work with those groups who want state and federal funds. We also offer co-sponsorships for cultural events and love for groups to utilize the Downtown Community Plaza," Moore said.
The Thomas Center can be reached at (352) 334-5064 for more information about facilities and programs. Teresa D. Southern can be contacted at (352) 337-0373 or at southet@ gvilleguardian.com.

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