By Gary White
LAKELAND — One of Lakeland’s most historically significant structures has returned to its original purpose.
It opened in 1928 as a retirement home for members of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. Eighty-nine years later, the building has been rescued from neglect and is again a home for retirees.
The former Carpenters’ Home is reborn as Lake Gibson Village, a senior living community holding its grand opening Thursday. The opening marks a renaissance for the Mediterranean-style structure, which closed as a retirement home in 1976 and later served as a private school.
“Cities will get the same big boxes and same-looking strip centers, but it’s their old buildings that define them,” Lakeland Community Development Director Jim Studiale said, “and it’s wonderful that North Lakeland has that building with a new purpose that’s going to be there for another 100 years doing great things for the community.”
The opening culminates a process that began in February 2015, when a pair of investors purchased a 66-acre property that included the former Carpenter’s Home Church, whose 10,000-seat sanctuary made it the largest church in Polk County.
The developers demolished the church building last year as part of a multi-phase plan to create a senior residential complex. The restoration of the former retirement home, which had deteriorated badly amid neglect and vandalism, is the first phase.
The celebration is tinged with sadness. Doug Cook, the developer who conceived and oversaw the project, died unexpectedly in June at age 55. His sister, Renee Tucker, is CEO of Lake Gibson Village.
“I just take a lot of personal pride and satisfaction in seeing Doug Cook’s vision come to fruition,” Tucker said last week. “Lake Gibson Village is possible because of the effort that he took to provide such a backdrop for what we’re going to be doing here.”
Cook’s widow, Sandy Cook of Daytona Beach, inherited his share in the property, Tucker said. Jeremy Cook, the developer’s son, was part of the construction team.
The 115,000-square-foot building had been dormant since 2006, when Evangel Christian School shut down. Without Walls, a now-defunct church based in Tampa, bought the entire property in 2005, renaming the sanctuary as Without Walls Central.
The church ceased holding services amid dwindling attendance in 2010, and the property eventually went into foreclosure. Cook and financial partner George Anderson paid $3.75 million for the site.
Before that purchase, the building seemed in serious jeopardy.
“It wasn’t very long ago we wondered about its viability,” Studiale said. “It was deteriorating, and if a historical building doesn’t find a new purpose it’s going to continue to deteriorate. So you have to repurpose great old buildings.”
Lake Gibson Village has 142 apartments ranging from studios to two-bedroom units, Tucker said. Many rooms offer views of Lake Gibson.
The facility is open to residents age 62 and older. She said it will probably take about two years to reach full occupancy. The first residents are scheduled to move in Thursday.
As workers completed the final stages of the renovation last week, the building gleamed as it hadn’t for decades. The transformation was most apparent in the lobby, with its terrazzo floor and steps lined with ceramic tiles.
Decorative elements on interior columns were newly painted in terra cotta shades.
A former auditorium has been transformed into a dining room with seating for 128. The restored stage will be used for musical recitals, academic lectures and community theater performances, Tucker said.
The apartments benefit from the arched windows along the exterior walls, which allow ample natural light to enter.
The exterior, pale yellow with gold trim and a rippled brown roofline, stands proudly with all its broken windows replaced.
A fireplace in the lobby has been repaired and is now functional. Common areas on the first floor will feature a hair salon, a library and a card room. An exterior building will serve as a wood shop for residents’ use.
A swimming pool has been constructed between the center and north wings. The property has a dock extending into Lake Gibson, and Tucker said the community will offer cruises on the lake in a pontoon boat.
Steve Curtis of Charles Wayne Construction Services in Daytona Beach oversaw the completion of the project as owners’ representative after Doug Cook’s death. Curtis said Cook had taken great care to preserve the building’s historic ambience.
“Literally, my role was to pick up the good work Doug Cook Development had done and see it on through,” Curtis said. “What I’m doing is really the easy part. Doug did all the heavy lifting prior to me getting here.”
Tucker said the restoration is a tribute to her late brother’s vision.
“He could walk into a building like this and the condition it was in and he could see what it could be,” she said. “He saw right through the present condition to what it could be. So it’s very rewarding for me now to see that finality.”
Tucker said many who have inquired about living at Lake Gibson Village already know the building’s rich history.
“If they’re not familiar with the history, the moment they walk in they ask about it,” she said. “A lot of people who have come here from Lakeland are very familiar and are just thrilled to see it restored.”