ORLANDO — As Katrece Pitts pointed out, their mission has always been about the preservation of history — and in Orlando’s African-American neighborhood of Parramore, a lot of that history traced itself back to one building.
“When we found this building, it had been abandoned for over 20 years,” Pitts said. “Our job here, because Dr. Wells didn’t have any children, is to tell a story.”
That story dates back to the 1920s, when a local African-American physician, Dr. William Monroe Wells, built a hotel and entertainment venue for Orlando’s African-American community in what was then the segregated South.
The Wells’ Built Hotel and South Street Casino became a popular spot within the city’s African American community. The hotel had 20 rooms, and the casino attracted talent like Ray Charles to perform there.
“It was occupied until the late 1980s,” said Pitts. But after that, it fell into disrepair, and largely became abandoned for several decades.
Today, the historic hotel has a new life — and mission — as The Wells’Built Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum has two rooms that are home to a lot of unique memorabilia from Central Florida’s African-American community, while the restored hotel is both a part of that museum, and is available as office space.
“Wells moved here in 1917,” said Pitts, the museum’s curator and guide. “It’s dedicated to his legacy because he built this hotel.”
How Did the Museum Get Created?
It was around 2011 that a concerted effort was made to restore and revitalize the hotel and casino, which had been neglected, despite the fact that it’s just one block south of the Amway Center, downtown Orlando’s tourism arena and home to the Orlando Magic. The hotel is in the center of Orlando’s Parramore district at 511 W. South St.
The museum has a short video recounting its history, detailing how the city’s African American community rallied together to get the property restored and turned into a museum. It was state Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, who helped lead these efforts.
“We realized African American history is a part of American history, and that story is not being told,” Thompson said in an interview that’s a part of the video.
The hotel was built in the 1920s, a prosperous decade for the nation, and Wells, a physician who delivered a lot of babies in the city, recognized its potential. Over the years, the hotel and casino served as a gathering place for weddings and other celebrations.
“It was very much a community center,” Thompson noted.
Even though the casino didn’t have air conditioning back then (although the museum and hotel do today), the place was often packed on weekends and at night.
“Ray Charles not only played at the South Street Casino, but stayed at the Wells’Built Hotel,” Pitts said.
Wells died in 1957, and his wife would take over the hotel until her death in the late 1980s. It was then that the property changed hands and eventually was left vacant. But the building still carried a lot of historical significance.
What is the Museum Like Today?
Today the hotel still contains the 20 rooms that once got rented out, but now the rooms are mostly rented out as office space, save for one room that is a part of the museum and shows what it looked like when it was still a hotel.
The casino has two rooms filled with artifacts from the region’s history.
“What is housed here, 85% of it is from Central Florida,” Pitts said.
The museum looks at famous musicians and entertainers who performed at the casino, prominent civil rights leaders like Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall who stayed at the hotel, and the changes within the community over the decades, such as the formation in 1945 of the Orlando Negro Chamber of Commerce.
Pitts noted that the museum, which was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places on Feb. 4, 2000, has become a strong partner in the downtown Orlando community.
Just recently, vandals kicked in the front door and shattered the glass of a display case containing memorabilia from the Orlando Magic. The vandals stole two Orlando Magic jerseys.
Pitts said the community has rallied to get the display case repaired, to add new security cameras and lighting on the property, and the Orlando Magic has promised to replace the memorabilia.
The Wells’Built Museum of African American History and Culture is at 511 W. South St. in the Parramore neighborhood of downtown Orlando. The museum is open Mondays through Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays by appointment. Call 407-245-7535 to learn more or to make an appointment to see it.
Admission is $5 for adults and $3 for students. Bring cash since they do not accept debit cards or credit cards at this time. They sell souvenirs there as well.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Of Cats And Wolves.” Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.