Cox Furniture Store
19 SE. First Ave., Gainesville, FL
Also known as Simonson Opera House; Edwards Opera House; New Baird Theater. Built in 1890.
When the fire that swept through downtown Gainesville in 1886 destroyed the wood frame opera house named Roper’s Hall, the site on which it had stood did not remain empty for long. By May of 1887 the structure had been replaced by a two-story brick building the second floor of which housed J. Simonson’s new opera house. The first floor contained a saloon and a cigar store. Simonson offered his patrons a wide selection of entertainment, including plays, concerts, and variety acts. As time passed Simonson made various improvements to his theater to make his patrons more comfortable. Around 1893 Simonson sold the property to J. F. Edwards, who renamed it Edwards Opera House. The ownership and name changed once again in 1906 when Eberle Baird purchased the building containing the opera house. Baird was the owner of Baird Hardware, a prosperous business which had opened for business in 1890.
Baird made the first major structural change in the building in 1906 when he added a third story to provide balcony space for the opera house, thereby increasing the seating capacity to 1,000. The flat roof of the original structure was replaced with an imposing mansard roof featuring elegant arched dormers containing paired arched louvers. The lower two stories of the building remained largely unaltered. Renamed the New Baird Theater, the renovated opera house was Gainesville ‘s center for a wide variety of stage and musical productions until the 1920s.
In 1908, Baird leased the theater to Louis Kalbfield, who staged the operas “Martha” and “The Bohemian Girl” for Gainesville audiences during his first season as manager of the theater. Kalbfield added “moving pictures” a year later, but the staple of Baird Theater entertainments continued to be stage shows, productions by local groups, and events sponsored by the University of Florida. Renowned personalities appeared on its stage, among them William Jennings Bryan, who addressed an entranced audience in 1912. The building was leased to a new manager as a movie house in 1925. However, the Baird Theater was not able to compete with newer movie theaters in Gainesville, and closed around 1929.
The Opera House Block had always had other tenants in addition to the Theater, and it occupied an important position in the commercial life of the town. The saloon on the southeast corner of the first floor was closed in 1904 when the county went dry. It was replaced by a drugstore, J. W. McCollum and Co., Prescription Druggists, that occupied the address for 35 years. A succession of businesses operated out of the other two stores on the first floor through the 1920s. These included a grocery store, a tailor, a bakery, and a beauty shop. Lawyers’ offices, an insurance agency, and a photographer’s studio were on the second floor. These businesses continued to occupy the building even after the theater closed.
A renovation and reuse of the building was prompted by a fire in 1938 that destroyed most of the structures on the block of South Main Street near the courthouse. Among the structures that were burned was the furniture store owned by Daniel R. Cox. In 1939, Cox purchased the building containing the defunct Baird Theater as his new business location. The pioneer furniture dealer had purchased the Gainesville Furniture Company in 1917 and changed its name to the Cox Furniture Store. It was the largest furniture store in Gainesville, and Cox also set up retail outlets in Ocala, Cross City, Lake City, Orlando, and Tallahassee. He also purchased a warehouse building at 609 South Main Street in 1925 to store his overflow inventory of stock. The building is still standing and was nominated to the National Register in 1993.
Cox hired architect Sanford Coin to prepare plans for the renovation of the building. Coin had designed a number of important buildings in Gainesville, including the Gainesville High School, several Gainesville churches, and the University of Florida Baptist Student Center. Changes to the structure included the removal of the theater from the second and third floors and the reinforcement of the original brick bearing walls with steel framing. The stage flys gallery that rose above the roof on the southeast corner was removed and an electric elevator installed at the southwest corner of the building. The Cox Furniture Store operated from this downtown location until 1991, when the company went out of business and closed the store. The building has remained vacant since then but is in the process of being renovated, using the federal tax incentives for the rehabilitation of historic structures.
Cox Furniture Store is a National Register of Historic Places.