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    Plaques boast of Palm Harbor's past

    The Historical Society kicks off a drive to affix bronze plaques to downtown buildings to remind folks of the town's colorful history.

    By ROBERT FARLEY

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 3, 2001


    PALM HARBOR -- Redden Hill had heard the buzz about the town of Sutherland and decided to trek down from his home in North Florida to check it out.

    He liked what he saw, so in 1896 he built a general store on Florida Avenue across the street from the San Marino Hotel. Later, when the hotel became Sutherland College, the store catered to students.

    These days, that same building is home to Geographic Solutions, a software company. The building has largely remained the same over the years, but where one might have expected to find such staples as brooms, molasses and wheat, now there are computers, telephones and faxes.

    But as a reminder of its historic significance to what is now the downtown Palm Harbor area, a bronze plaque was affixed next to the front door Wednesday morning. It reads: "HILL BLDG., est. 1896, Palm Harbor Historical Society."

    The plaque is the first of a series that will be attached to buildings in downtown Palm Harbor to remind passers-by of the area's history. Palm Harbor Historical Society members felt it was important to give that nod to the past as the downtown sits on the verge of a major overhaul aimed at revitalization.

    The Hill Building is the second oldest building in downtown Palm Harbor, said Winona Jones, director of the Palm Harbor Historical Museum. The oldest is the home of the Masonic Lodge, which was built in 1888 by J.C. Craves as a general store and post office. Craves lived on the second floor.

    The Masonic Lodge was to be the first to get a historic plaque, but lodge members are still discussing the wording for the plaque.

    So that honor went to the Hill Building. Geographic Solutions moved from the Key West Center on Alt. U.S. 19 to the Hill Buildings a year and a half ago.

    "It seemed like a great opportunity to be in somewhere that has character," said company president Paul Toomey.

    Toomey spent about six months and $100,000 to renovate the building. Though the original pine floors could only be saved in two upstairs rooms, the carpet was pulled up throughout and new hardwood floors were put in. Toomey also installed chair rails and wood molding and restored some of the original wainscoting. But there were modern touches too, like the addition of hot water for the company's break room.

    "They've done an excellent job," Jones said.

    It looks much as it must have when Redden Hill built it, Jones said. The Historical Society gathered much of its information about the building from Gertrude "Trudy" Noxtine, a descendant of the Hill family who died in 1998.

    For example, they learned that Redden Hill had three horses, a wagon and a surrey, which he used to deliver supplies and groceries to the outlying areas.

    "He worked up a pretty good business," Jones said.

    After the college burned down in 1921, Hill and his wife moved back to North Florida. But their nephew, who had been working at the store, stayed on.

    Over the years the Hill Building has had a variety of uses, including as a roofing business, a fabric store, a feed store, an antique store and a gift shop.

    Toomey, a native of England who moved to Tampa Bay 16 years ago, said the building has made a nice home for his business.

    "This is a nice area to work with the character of the downtown," Toomey said.

    Toomey, who lives in Crystal Beach, said he chose the location to be close to home.

    The company, which specializes in developing software for work force development, has been booming of late. The company now has 30 employees and has quickly outgrown the Hill Building. So Geographic Solutions is restoring a building a block away on Nebraska Avenue that will act as an extension of the company.

    Other buildings in the downtown that will get plaques include Iris and Ivy, a flower shop that was once a post office; the Barber Shop; the Sutherland Cafe; Palm Harbor Hardware, which used to be a hardware store and garage that repaired equipment used in citrus groves; the Walter building, a residence near the White Chapel; and the Dorrance Building, originally a residence and now home to the Blue Coyote Cafe and Oak Trail Books.

    All of the buildings are designated as historic buildings by the county and state, Jones said. She said the plaques will be installed as the Historical Society gets money to pay for them.

    - Staff writer Robert Farley can be reached at (727) 445-4185.

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