The Hippodrome State Theatre: A historical treasure trove

Emma McAvoy, Avenue Staff Writer | Mar 27, 2019

The building at 25 Southeast Second Place now houses the Hippodrome State Theatre, but began its life as a federal courthouse and post office in 1911.  Courtesy to The Alligator

The building at 25 Southeast Second Place now houses the Hippodrome State Theatre, but began its life as a federal courthouse and post office in 1911.

Courtesy to The Alligator

Pillared with ornate corinthian columns and a unique neoclassical style of architecture, the Hippodrome State Theatre, located at 25 Southeast Second Place, is considered one of the most beautiful buildings in Gainesville. The building was not always a theater, though. For more than 100 years, it has accumulated stories that make it a historical marker of the city.

Construction began in 1909, according to Bob Robins, the production manager and lighting designer at the theater. The building was designed by the United States Department of the Interior. When it opened in 1911, it served as a post office and federal courthouse.   

The U.S. Government decided to make Gainesville Federal Court District C, which was important because Gainesville was recognized as a federal entity, Robins said.  

Every crevice and corner of that theater has seen pieces of history. The mechanical elevators are over 100 years old, and the basement is marble-encased. According to Robins, the dressing room basement’s stalls were once holding cells for inmates awaiting trial.

The structure served as a courthouse until 1963.

The building was empty until the early 1970s when the Alachua County School Board took over the space briefly, but quickly left the building to rot.

Enter six ambitious UF alumni who were looking for fresh, cutting-edge theater and a space to create.

During a time when the building was desolate, the Hippodrome was founded by the six in 1973, Robins said.

The six students — Mary and Greg Hausch, Marilyn Wall, Kerry McKinney, Bruce Cornwell and Orin Wechsberg — began the Hippodrome State Theatre Company out of an abandoned 7-Eleven off of Hawthorne Road. They were ambitious and in search of contemporary theater that would push boundaries.

“The students called themselves a bunch of wild hippies who were collectively involved with theater,” said Lauren Caldwell, the former artistic director of the Hippodrome.  

While the students moved to different locations, such as an empty warehouse on U.S. Route 441, they searched for a home for their new company. In 1979, UF architecture professor Harry Merritt had a vision for the abandoned downtown building to be a cultural center.  

According to Robins, Merritt gathered his students to collaborate with the six artists and the city to build the Hippodrome. It was the birth of an economic boom and a redevelopment for downtown Gainesville.   

“Downtown revitalization in the 1980s was centered around the Hippodrome,” Robins said. “The Hippodrome acted as a cornerstone of that redevelopment, bringing in restaurants and bars.”  

The Hippodrome became a large source of economic stability for the city.

“Back when the Hippodrome was founded, it was a good time in our country for theater,” Caldwell said. “The National Endowment for the Arts was healthy, and arts funding was in a place that allowed for a lot of growth for theaters.”

Both Caldwell and Robins agree that this theater is, and has always been, a crown jewel of culture in Gainesville.

One of the aspects of this space that makes it the artistic monument it is today is that the company continues to strive for excellence and creativity and the commitment to the search for creative collaboration, Robins said.    

The Hippodrome is not only a historical monument — it is home to some of the most creative theater artists and collaborators in the Gainesville community. Over the years, this theater has transformed into one of the most prominent regional theaters in the state of Florida.

“Staying in a town like Gainesville to work in a regional theater is very surprising, and it just proves what falling in love with a theater can do for you,” Caldwell said. “It’s changed the face of the city by providing opportunities for people to seek professional theater in a town that would normally not support such a place.”

The Hippodrome has also provided many opportunities for the community because of its co-productions with their Theatre for Young Audiences Program and the UF School of Theatre and Dance.

This crown jewel has given actors across the state and the country a space to create new theater in, as well as a space for Gainesville locals and college students to sit back, relax and escape.