Where some saw a dirty, dilapidated building, Bill Bryson, former owner of The Covered Dish, saw an opportunity to infuse Gainesville with the creative energy that has produced artists like Tom Petty.
Bryson said he bought the Florida Theater at 233 W University Ave because of the loss of creative spirit he saw in downtown Gainesville. He said that new construction in historical neighborhoods has caused the culture that made downtown Gainesville unique disappear.
“I wanted to buy [the theater] mainly because I saw this new development happening in town and there was a likelihood of a building like that getting demolished in order for someone to build a high-rise residential,” Bryson said.
Bryson is collaborating with architect James Blythe to renovate the Florida Theater and add modern design elements while preserving historical elements. The renovation began in May 2018 when Bryson posted a message on Facebook inviting Gainesville residents to help clean up the venue.
Blythe said he hopes to preserve historical elements of the theater such as the marquee that was present when the building was founded in 1928.
According to Bryson, the Florida Theater was built in 1928. It was the first theater in Gainesville to have air conditioning and show color films. However, when the Oaks Mall was built in 1978 along with multi-screen movie theaters, business slowed and the Florida Theater gradually became a warehouse.
That all changed in 1984 when Ken McGurn, a real estate agent who renovated much of downtown Gainesville, bought the theater. McGurn renovated the theater in 1985 and turned it into a jazz club called The High Note.
The building was reinvigorated and The High Note was the place to be with marble countertops, blonde wood and a newly renovated theater. The Gainesville Orchestra performing “Hair” was the first performance.
Later, in the ’90s, the Florida Theater was turned into a concert venue. When the concert scene in Gainesville died down after the recession in the early 2000s, the building was left neglected once again.
That is, until Bryson bought it in 2017. With the renovations, Bryson hopes the theater will become the center of music and culture it once was.
“I’m excited to help boost the local scene with a venue like this,” Bryson said.
Editors' note: The story has been updated as of Thursday to reflect the renovation's cost is to be determined. The Alligator reported differently.