McCollum Hall is on its way to become the pride of Dunbar again— the predominantly black community of Fort Myers. The building from the 1930s was once a safe place for black musicians, comedians and entertainers to perform during the segregation era. It’s a locally designated historical landmark. But over the years, it dwindled into a boarding house that violated housing codes. The city purchased the deteriorated property about eight years ago, and now its restoration project is about halfway done. About 100 locals recently celebrated the renewed exterior.
McCollum Hall is along Dr. Martin Luther King Junior Boulevard at the intersection of Cranford Avenue. The building is made up of blonde-colored bricks. There are signs lining the top of it that have been around for at least 50 years.
The fading red letters read: “Men’s Clothes,” “Luggage,” “Shoes” and “Sportswear.” But Michele Hylton-Terry with the city of Fort Myers Community Redevelopment Agency, which is fixing up McCollum Hall, said about three months ago, it did not look like it did for the celebration party on Thursday, Aug. 25.
"The complete exterior of the building, the south side here, which runs onto MLK was boarded up," said Hylton-Terry. "There were no awnings, the brick was dirty, the light fixtures didn't work. I mean, this was a sad looking building."
She said this outer makeover is a milestone. And she said the ultimate goal with the property is to create jobs in this portion of Fort Myers that has a higher unemployment rate.
"We hope to have businesses in here and hoping that this project will be a catalyst to jump start other new businesses along the corridor," said Hylton-Terry.
"I remember my parents talking about the heyday of the McCollum Hall and who all came and all the big stars and all the dances," said Constance White-Davis, who was born and raised in Dunbar.
She just moved back after living 40 years in Sarasota. White-Davis said since coming home, she’s noticed the downtown Fort Myers community is doing well. And she hopes revamping McCollum Hall can push the Dunbar community in that direction, too.
"I hope what the city of Fort Myers is trying to do, I hope it comes into fruition. And that we really have businesses, people are using the hall for parties for weddings and that's what I want to see. And I want to see jobs given," she said.
White-Davis embraced her longtime friend Walt Wesley at the party. The two had not seen each other in some time.
"Well, Walt Wesley and I go way back a long ways," she said. "When I was a junior in high school he took me to my junior prom, so we're family friends. Our families are friends and when we see each other we just have to love on each other."
"I used to sit down in front there, me and my cousin, and watch the cars go by and talk and entertain each other," he said, chuckling.
Wesley said this event represented a great moment in history for the city of Fort Myers. And he hopes the state will one day recognize this structure as a historical landmark
"The building needs to be preserved. And this is a part of history, especially in this particular area. We do not need to forget that this area has a long standing history," he said.
The city of Fort Myers still needs more than $2 million to renovate the inside of McCollum Hall.