West Main Street, 1924
In 1882 Abraham Munn of Louisville Kentucky bought, sight unseen, 80 acres of land in an area of small lakes in Polk County, Florida. It appeared to be just another purchase of Florida acreage by a wealthy land speculator. Evidence indicates that Munn did not even see that land for more than a year after the purchase. Little did Munn know at the time that his small tract of uninhabited land would become the vibrant economic and cultural center of Polk County’s largest city.
Munn arrived in February 1884 to establish the Lakeland Improvement Company with two business partners. The company platted Munn’s 80 acre purchase and began selling lots in the nascent town of Lakeland. He helped to assure the success of his venture and the survival of Lakeland by persuading Henry Plant’s South Florida Railroad to locate its depot on Lakeland Improvement Company land just north of what is now Munn Park. He offered the railroad a number of enticements, including seven acres of land for railroad yards and terminals and the construction of a depot for the railroad at his own expense.
Those Lakeland Improvement Company lots constitute much of what is now Lakeland’s downtown business district. Construction started as soon as the presence of the railroad was assured. Pioneer settler Herbert Drane opened a drugstore and Norman Riggins and his family a dry goods store and a saw mill. Munn built a fine hotel, the Tremont House, on the present site of the Lakeland Terrace Hotel. The Tremont was considered to be one of the finest hotels in central Florida and the first building in Lakeland to have indoor bathtubs.
These nineteenth century buildings were constructed of wood, which made them extremely vulnerable to fire. And like so many other cities of the day, Lakeland was devastated by a series of fires in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of these early buildings were destroyed and the oldest surviving building in the business district is the Bowyer Building on North Kentucky Avenue. It was built in 1902.
As the city grew, the business district expanded and the buildings became more elaborate. The Clonts Building at Pine and Kentucky with its three story turret, the old City Hall building at Florida and Main with its distinctive tower, and the high rise Marble Arcade office building and the Terrace and New Florida hotels all contributed to the distinct character of the city’s business district.
This exhibit shows the changing character of Lakeland’s downtown business district from the low wood frame structures of the 1880’s and 1890’s to the high rise concrete and steel buildings of the 1920’s and 1930’s. So, view the business district in 1905 from the water tower at Massachusetts and Rose, or take a stroll down Main Street of the 1920’s and maybe stop to window shop at Moore’s Style shop. Finish your tour with a refreshing cold drink at the Jewett Drug Store soda fountain across from Munn Park in the 1930’s. Click on the links below to see downtown Lakeland as it was .