July 8, 2015

[Q&A] Phoebe and Richard Miles: The Historic Firestone Building Bridges the Past and Present of American Entrepreneurial Spirit

  • By: Jamesha Gibson
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The exterior of the rehabilitated Firestone Building.

Last year, the rehabilitation of the 1920s Firestone building in Gainesville, Florida was completed. Phoebe Cade Miles (the daughter of Gatorade inventor Dr. James Cade) and her husband, Richard Miles, of the Cade Museum, sponsored the project and worked with father/son team Richard and Ryland Wagner of Joyner Construction to complete the rehabilitation. The project was so well done that the Wagners were recognized by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation with an Honorable Mention for Adaptive Reuse award.

Recently, we sat down with Phoebe and Richard to talk about the Firestone rehabilitation project.

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The Firestone Building sits just east of the Segal Building (Gainesville’s tallest building).

What interested you in the Firestone building and why did you want to rehabilitate it?

P: I loved this old Firestone building since I was a little girl and I would always drive by it and be so sad that there was nothing there because it had been abandoned since the early ‘70s. I was always fascinated by the building and I said, “One day I would like to own that and restore it so it becomes part of the town again.”

R: We both grew up in Gainesville and the downtown area has seen a real renaissance in the last 10-12 years. We used to go downtown in high school in the early '80s and it was a typical downtown area. Most of the businesses had moved out. The only thing there was a courthouse, a handful of small restaurants, and that was it. It was bleak. We always thought it would be wonderful if somebody invested money there, but we never thought that we would be a part of that.

P: As high school students we used to dream about urban planning. We would go downtown to the coffee shop and talk about the great bones the city had. We realized that the personality was there, in the historic founding of the city, not in the suburbs or in the strip malls.

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Richard Wagner and Ryland Wagner of Joyner inspect the downstairs of the Firestone Building with Phoebe Cade Miles.

Can you give me a rough sketch of the rehabilitation process?

R: Our original plan for this building was to turn it into an event center. So we retained architects out of Atlanta and drew up these great plans, and then we handed it to some builders. The cost that the builders gave us was way more than the estimate from the architects, so we just kind of put the project on hold for a couple years. Then we thought, “why don’t we do it little by little?” [Doing the project in increments] took longer, and we were a lot more involved, but we ended up renovating it at a fraction of the cost that it would have taken if we had done it all in one big shot.

P: [We were also able to] uncover the historic nature of it bit by bit. We’re thrilled that we did it this way because it actually looks more historic now than it would have if we had gone with previous plans to modernize it.

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Installation of the River Recovered heart wood pine from the Goodwin Company.

Why did you pick Joyner Construction, Inc. for the project?

P: The economy collapsed and all of the construction companies were out of work. They actually approached us and said they'd be willing to work on whatever just to give their sub-contractors jobs. So they were willing to do something they would never be willing to do now and that is [working on a project bit by bit]. So we developed a great relationship with them.

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Full second floor view of Firestone Building with sunlight coming through industrial exhaust fan cavity.

What were the main original features that were maintained during the rehabilitation?

P: One of the main features that I insisted on keeping was the industrial fan at the end of the building. They encased it in glass so it almost looks like a piece of art.

R: There was about a third of the [original] wood from the floor upstairs. Some of it had been lifted up and was stacked in a corner. We used all that original wood and we got some River Recovered heart pine wood to complement that.

P: The Goodwin Company came in and said that we could either throw it away or sell it to people who like old lumber because it wasn’t enough to do a floor and it wouldn’t match the River Recovered wood. I said, “that’s fine, let’s do an oriental carpet medallion pattern with the old wood.”  [Now] when you walk in, the floor is stunning because it’s multiple colors of wood put together in a pattern like an oriental rug, and the medallion in the middle is like a stylized industrial fan with the original wood that’s darker and the lighter River Recovered wood around it. That's probably the best feature.

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A closer view of the stylized medallion that was modeled after the industrial fan.

Is the whole building used for office space?

R: It’s all office space. Basically SharpSpring took up all the new section that we finished last year and there is a tech incubator, which is an office space, on the other side. What’s probably going to happen is SharpSpring will eventually take up the entire building because it’s a quickly growing company.

P: I do have thoughts on that. I read about the story of Harvey Firestone and particularly his friendship with Edison and Ford -- they were all colleagues in the new technology of the automobile. [I thought about] this great friendship between these great American entrepreneurs, and then I thought about our entire museum that we’re building for inventors and entrepreneurs. I saw a lot of parallels between our past entrepreneurs and our future entrepreneurs and how we were kind of the bridge between the two. The Firestone building is filling a space that is historic in a new way, but with the same entrepreneurial roots.

Text edited for length and clarity.

Jamesha Gibson is an Editorial Intern at the National Trust. She is passionate about using historic preservation as an avenue for underrepresented communities to share their unique stories. Jamesha also enjoys learning about other cultures through reading, art, language, dancing, and especially cuisine.

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