The 50-year history of Lakeland’s Hotel Thelma

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The Hotel Thelma next to the Terrace Hotel, circa 1950 | Photo via Florida Memory

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Do you know the name of Lakeland’s first modern hotel? If not, it’s probably because the lifespan of the lodging was just short of 50 years.

Kibler Hotel, later named the Hotel Thelma, was constructed over 100 years ago by Adolphus and David B. Kiblertwin brothers out of North Carolina. The duo made it big back in 1907 due to a successful career in the phosphate industry + modeled the structure after the “Beaux-Arts” style.

This style is reminiscent of Greco-Roman architecture, which is still popular in modern US cities like Chicago and, back during the Kibler’s time, was a common architectural medium.

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Hotel Kibler, facing north on Kentucky Avenue, circa 1920 | Photo via Florida Memory

The architecture is famous for its focus on symmetry, ostentatious column work, statues and other figures hammered into the exterior, and for having a stone-like appearance.

Once a style was selected, Adolphus and David agreed on the location: the northeast corner of Kentucky Avenue and Lemon Street. The brothers purchased the plot + built the hotel for a whopping $125,000 — which amounts to roughly $3,599,565 by today’s standards after inflation.

Thus, Lakeland’s first modern hotel was born on November 10, 1913. According to “A Guide to Historic Lakeland, Florida,” by Steve Rajtar, “the first floor was set off by an arcaded loggia and the roofline was topped by pedimented corner pavilions, giving it the appearance of a French house from the 1600s.”

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Hotel Thelma, circa 1920 | Photo via Florida Memory

After just 6 years of ownership, the Kibler brothers made the decision to sell their flagship hotel to Henry B. Carter — a real estate developer responsible for the development of Dixieland in 1907 alongside C. W. Deen.

Throughout his ownership, the spot was a revolving door to greats of the mid-1900s like the Cleveland Indians, who took up residency at the hotel during baseball spring training at Adair Field in the 1920s. Other notable guests to walk through the threshold include Thomas Edison and Theodore Roosevelt.

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A brochure of Lakeland mentioning the Hotel Thelma, circa 1950 | Photo via Florida Memory

Sadly, Henry passed just a few years later in 1924, about a year prior to the opening of the Palace Theater, now home to Palace Pizza, which Henry purchased and renamed after its 12-year stint as the Casino Theater.

The following 40 years of Hotel Thelma were successful, playing host to visitors of Lakeland’s downtown, and played a particularly integral role as the meeting place for many groups around town, including cultural and civic organizations. However, due to the rise of motels in the 1950s and the way the property aged, the Hotel Thelma was forced to shut its doors in April of 1962 after it was deemed unprofitable. The building was torn down just a month later.

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The Hotel Thelma, circa 1950 | Photo via Florida Memory

Today, the plot of land where the Hotel Thelma once stood is home to the popular shops and restaurants (think Frescos) that dot Kentucky Avenue. Back in 2019, talks of a 156,900-sqft retail, commercial + residential space were proposed and supposedly approved at the vacant lots of 313 + 321 N. Massachusetts Avenue, modeling it after the former 1913 landmark.

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