By Gary White – The Ledger
LAKELAND — Nearly 90 years after its construction and a decade after it was last used, the former Carpenters’ Home building now thrums with activity and echoes with the sounds of hammers and power equipment.
The historic building in North Lakeland, which opened in 1928 as a retirement haven for carpenters, will become a home for retirees from various professions by late summer when it opens as an independent living facility called Lake Gibson Village.
On the outside, the Mediterranean-style building at 777 Carpenters Way already looks ready for occupancy. Crews have restored the pale-yellow stucco exterior walls, and gold trim and ornate details, erasing the signs of decay that plagued the building in recent years.
The broken and grimy windows have been replaced with modern fixtures, and rows of new vents for the air-conditioning system are in place.
Inside, much work remains to be done. Recently installed water pipes and electrical lines are visible in the ceilings, and the wooden and metal frames for interior walls abound.
The four-story building is part of a 66-acre property bought for $3.75 million in February 2015 by Doug Cook, president and CEO of Cook Development, and financial partner George Anderson.
The site is best known for a much larger structure, Without Walls Central Church, a 10,000-seat sanctuary built in the 1980s and originally known as Carpenter’s Home Church. The church had been vacant for several years amid foreclosure proceedings and the developers had it demolished last year.
Lake Gibson Village is the first of three planned phases of development. Construction on the second phase, an assisted living facility in the area previously occupied by the church, will begin about 18 months after the initial project opens, said Renee Tucker, a spokeswoman for Cook Development, which is based in Daytona Beach.
The third phase will be a memory care unit. Tucker said the entire project will have a $100 million economic impact on the area.
Lake Gibson Village recently launched a website, www.lakegibsonvillage.com, and began accepting applications for its 142 apartments. The website contains a history section with a link allowing residents to share their memories of the property.
Cook’s company is overseeing the renovation of the 125,000-square-foot structure, and some local companies are subcontractors for specialized work.
This isn’t Cook’s first experience with revitalizing a historic structure. In the late 1990s, his company purchased the former Riviera Hotel, a 1920s-era landmark in Holly Hill, and transformed it into a senior living facility.
Cook’s firm also has developed oceanfront properties in the Daytona Beach area. His one previous venture in Polk County is Southern Gardens, an assisted-living facility in Lake Alfred.
Despite its age, the former Carpenters’ Home building faces no development restrictions from the city, Lakeland Planning Manager Teresa Maio said. The property was already zoned for planned unit development but required two modifications, Maio said. The second modification was approved Dec. 21.
Cook’s company was allowed to begin renovation work in February 2015 on a “proceed at your own risk” basis while seeking the zoning changes, Maio said.
Cook’s purchase included the athletic fields on the opposite side of Carpenter’s Way. Cook has signed a series of one-year leases allowing the city to use those fields and plans to donate the land to the city, Lakeland Parks and Recreation Director Bob Donahay said.
The city is merely maintaining the fields for now and will later decide on long-term use, Donahay said.
On a recent morning, Cook took a break from his supervisory work and sat in his truck parked near the building’s entrance. He said the positive reception from nearby residents is a contrast to his experience with other renovations.
“All the neighbors have been very supportive,” Cook said. “They come over and they stop by.”
Cook said this is the first time he has faced no criticism in zoning meetings for one of his projects.
He said he could have saved money on the project if he hadn’t been committed to preserving the structure’s designs elements as much as possible.
He was asked how it felt to see the building’s exterior restored to a gleam not seen for decades.
“It makes me feel good,” Cook said. “It’s what I envisioned, basically.”
The building housed Evangel Christian School until its closing in 2006. By the time Cook acquired it, the building was significantly damaged through neglect and vandalism.
Cook plans to restore the grimy terrazzo floor and the original fireplace on the main floor, which will become a lobby and activities center. Tucker said the lobby area will feature a baby grand piano, a wine bar, a hair salon, a library and a card room.
The developer has retained the arched windows and art deco-style hanging light fixtures in the building’s former auditorium, which will be converted into a dining room with the stage intact for performances.
Cook also salvaged one of the property’s out-buildings, which Tucker said will include a wood shop for residents to use.
A heated swimming pool will be built in the open area between the southern wing of the E-shaped structure and the dining area.
The property includes 400 feet of frontage on Lake Gibson. The developer already has constructed a wooden pier, and Tucker said the facility will offer residents sunset cruises on a pontoon boat.
Lake Gibson Village recently hired a marketing director and will soon be filling other positions, Tucker said.
— Gary White can be reached at email@example.com or 863-802-7518. He blogs about tourism at http://tourism.blogs.theledger.com. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.