Five Historic and Unique Spaces Around Downtown Pensacola
Pensacola’s History Written in Architecture
Not all history is written in books. Much of Pensacola’s rich history can be taken in with a stroll through downtown looking at various buildings. A lot of our history is written in architecture.
Here are five buildings in Downtown Pensacola with histories that run deeper than the structures are currently being utilized for:
1. The T.T. Wentworth, Jr. Florida State Museum, 330 S Jefferson Street
This three-story Mediterranean Revival structure was originally constructed as the Pensacola City Hall in 1907 and for nearly 80 years housed Pensacola’s municipal government until a new City Hall was built in 1985.
The building is now named for Theodore Thomas "Tom" Wentworth, Jr., (1898-1989) a Pensacola businessman who was elected as an Escambia County commissioner and tax collector. He was also a noted preservationist, being a charter member of the Pensacola Historic Society. His collection turned into a museum that moved into the former City Hall building in 1988. A bit of more recent history saw a visit to the Wentworth from Spain’s King Juan Carlos I and Queen Sofía in 2009 when they came to Pensacola to mark Spanish conquistador Tristan de Luna’s 1559 landing here. The king addressed a crowd outside the museum from its second story porch.
The T.T. Wentworth Museum is the flagship of a collection of museums in Downtown Pensacola managed by the University of West Florida Historic Trust. The museum features both permanent and changing exhibits. One of the permanent exhibits tells the story a tavern known as Trader Jon’s Bar, a piece of downtown architectural history in its own right.
2. Trader Jon’s, 511 S. Palafox
From 1953 to 2003, Trader Jon’s Bar was the destination of choice for Naval aviators. The bar, owned by Martin "Trader Jon" Weissman, became an institution known as much for its Navy memorabilia as for it’s imbibery. In its heyday, Trader Jon’s one of Pensacola’s top tourist attractions, welcoming celebrities such as Prince Andrew, John Wayne, Elizabeth Taylor and Bob Hope.
Today, the building that housed Trader Jon’s is called 5 Eleven Palafox, a venue available for wedding receptions and other private events. In 2017, the facility was purchased by Pensacola entrepreneurs Quint and Rishy Studer. At the time, Mr. Studer said he had no plans to make any major changes at the facility.
3. Pensacola Museum of Art, 407 S. Jefferson
When this building was constructed in 1906, it was not the destination of choice for most Pensacolians. It was the jail, as well as the police station, city court and shore patrol. According to the museum’s website, the two-story Spanish Revival was the first permanent jail in Pensacola. It served that civil purpose for four decades.
The Pensacola Art Association leased the facility in the 1950s and purchased it in the 1980s. Today, the museum, which is also managed by the University of West Florida, “presents engaging cross-disciplinary exhibitions, educational programming, and stewards a growing collection of modern and contemporary art of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries,” according to the website.
4. The Saenger Theatre, 118 S. Palafox
Built in 1925, the Saenger evokes a time when going to the theater was truly an event. Designed in the Rococo style of Spanish Baroque architecture, the Saenger welcomed Vaudeville acts, Broadway plays and other live entertainment as well as movies. It was part of a chain that also included Saenger theaters in New Orleans, Houston, Mobile and many other cities.
It ended its commercial use in 1975 when it was donated to the City of Pensacola. It has since been reborn in a series of renovations. It now hosts contemporary acts passing through as well as year-round performing arts groups like Ballet Pensacola, the Pensacola Opera and the Pensacola Symphony Orchestra.
5. The Rex Theatre, 18 N. Palafox
Built in 1910 as a furniture store and converted to a movie theater in the 1930s, the Rex stopped showing movies in 1977 and had been closed to commercial use since 1989.
Generation Church, a congregation that has used several movie theater venues in Pensacola for its causal, modern services, bought the Rex in 2012. Since, the church has restored the the facility’s 1930’s art deco façade and renovated the interior auditorium. While Generation uses the facility for its services, it also offers the venue to the community for events like showings of classic movies.
These are just five of buildings, houses and spaces in and around Pensacola that have another story to tell.
Louis Cooper has lived in Northwest Florida since 1997 when work brought him here directly out of college. But he has since come to think of the Pensacola area as his home. He had a career at the Pensacola News Journal and the Northwest Florida Daily News covering local government, business and community. He currently works in freelance marketing and professional writing. He lives with his husband, Craig Webster, and their dogs, Angus and Riley, in Pensacola.