• Property: Lake Mirror Tower
  • Location: Lakeland, Fla.
  • Cost of Renovation: $10.7 million
  • Scope of Project: Renovate an abandoned hotel into modern apartments

Ah, the 1920s. Back then, The Florida qualified as one of the grandest structures in Lakeland, Fla. With its bell tower and Spanish Revival-style architecture, the 180-room hotel stood out at the center of downtown. It entertained famous guests such as inventor Thomas Edison and architect Frank Lloyd Wright. During World War II, it did its patriotic service for the country as The New Florida Hotel; Red Cross volunteers used the bell tower as a lookout for enemy planes. But over time, the formerly illustrious building evolved into a senior residence and then finally became vacant in 1991.

Today, the splendor of this historic nine-story building has returned. After a $10.7 million renovation completed in 2005, The Florida is now known as Lake Mirror Tower, a 76-unit apartment building with one of the best views in town, thanks to a rooftop sundeck that overlooks Lake Mirror, downtown Lakeland, and more.

"You can look out and see for miles and miles," says Gene Strickland, a former city manager and now a consultant with the Carlisle Development Group, a Florida-based multifamily developer and manager that handled the renovation. The property also features a lap pool, fitness center, and business center.

Saving The building

The property was not always this deluxe in terms of amenities, despite its early status as one of Lakeland's three skyscrapers.

Formerly The Florida, Lake Mirror Tower now offers lakefront living to apartment Scott Wheeler
Formerly The Florida, Lake Mirror Tower now offers lakefront living to apartment Scott Wheeler

Built in the 1920s, the edifice displayed textured stucco walls and bracketed roofs. The decorative corners and curvilinear top of the bell tower distinguished the building from the structures that surrounded it.

But its unique contribution to the Lakeland skyline was nearly lost. After the property became vacant in 1991, the old hotel's days appeared to be numbered.

But Lakeland residents fought to preserve their city landmark–and they won. The city even offered subsidized incentives to developers who were interested in renovating the deteriorating building. The winning choice? Carlisle Development Group.

"[Lakeland] has a track record of saving buildings that were on the chopping block and have been successfully reused, so I think that is what spurred the renovation of this building," says Lynn Schindler, a senior planner for the city of Lakeland. "Once you demolish a building, it's gone forever."

Back to the basics

Renovating the old hotel required extensive work by Carlisle. The building was literally stripped to its bones; each floor was gutted, leaving only the steel structure.

Windy Keene

From there, the developer had to transform the 180-unit hotel into a 76-unit apartment building–one of its most difficult tasks. As a result, Lake Mirror Tower ended up with a different layout on each floor in order to accommodate the demands of the existing structure.

The developer encountered the opposite problem with the building's elevator plan, which involved converting the property into single-elevator use. The original three elevators were small enough that the developer worried whether residents' furniture would even fit in the elevator cars.

Carlisle also needed room in the elevator shaft to locate electrical lines, and the shafts provided the space for utilities. And, of course, The Florida's three existing elevator shafts did not easily accommodate the one new elevator, which turned out to be a different style than the one originally planned. (According to Strickland, the new single elevator has been sufficiently speedy.)

Meeting present-day building codes in an 80-year-old structure also challenged the construction team. Among other tasks, workers had to make fire sprinkler system heads as inconspicuous as possible and clear the building of its remaining asbestos, however little they found.

Air conditioning had to be installed throughout the apartment building, and each unit required an individual thermostat.

"That's the problem of working with an old building," Strickland says. "The building kind of resisted us, and it slowed things down. But we didn't want to take away from the beauty of the building."

Carlisle also bought distinctive windows for the property in an effort to match the original design and re-create the splendor of the classic building.

Hurricanes didn't help the construction process either. In the end, though, the renovation was completed just four months behind schedule. While the units themselves are fairly basic, without the high-end finishes of a luxury property, Lake Mirror Tower has had little trouble filling its apartments. Rents range from $620 to $2,000 for the one- and two-bedroom units at the property, which is 90 percent occupied.

What's the appeal? The surrounding neighborhood, which offers an amphitheatre and an improved street-scape. Many major employers such as Publix and Watkins Motor Lines are also located in the downtown area. "It's about location and attraction," says Strickland. "[Lake Mirror Tower] is located in the spot in downtown Lakeland."

Light and Life

The reopening of The Florida as Lake Mirror Tower didn't just revive a building; it also rejuvenated downtown Lakeland. Since the property opened in 2005, at least three more smaller apartment complexes have either begun construction or are in the planning phase. The city also plans to construct more than 400 residential units on 14 acres in northeast downtown Lakeland.

"It's the most exciting thing when I leave work and look up and see light and people moving around in a building that was literally abandoned for 10 years," Schindler says. "It is such a good sense of how we retained our history, yet there is life there ... once again."

–Emily Howald is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Action Items

1– Get a little help from your friends. Convince your local officials to work with you on the restoration of historic buildings in your area and encourage them to subsidize costs.

2– Budget for costs of renewing equipment. Matching 80-year-old elevator shafts with current elevators can get tricky–and pricey.