By Martie Thompson
Across from Alpine Groves Park on State Road 13 sits an old volunteer firehouse that hasn’t been in use since the county built Fire Station 2 in Switzerland in 2000. What many people don’t know is that behind this old firehouse is a truly historic building that is also in a state of disrepair: The Switzerland Community Center.
The William Bartram Scenic and Historic Highway Group, headed by Al Abbatiello, has had rebuilding or replacing this community center as part of its Corridor Master Plan since 2012 and Abbatiello said the group decided in 2016 that it was time to take on this project. The group is currently working with the Stetson Kennedy Foundation and Karen Roumillat, who is its vice chairman, is equally invested in getting this project off the ground.
Abbatiello said that in 2007, St. Johns County, which owns the half acre property containing the Switzerland Community Center, planned to restore the building via a grant, but unfortunately the grant request was rejected. Abbatiello is now in the process of getting a structural analysis of the building to determine if it is structurally sound and able to be restored. If it passes muster, county approval would then be needed for any restoration or private grant applications to finance it.
The Switzerland Community Center’s history dates to 1900, when the structure was built as a church in a different location in the area. In 1947, the building was donated by the Methodist Conference and moved to its current location, where it became the area’s recreational building. It hosted dances, meetings, Sunday dinners and was generally the focus of community living. It was also the voting precinct for this area. The volunteer fire station was added on to the front of the community center in the mid-1950s.
“Saving the community center might be our most important project long term, because we would also be saving the history of this community,” said Roumillat. “That building was ‘the’ gathering place for this vibrant community in the ‘40s and ‘50s.”
Provided the property proves to be structurally sound, the William Bartram Scenic and Historic Highway group hopes to restore the building to its late 1940s architecture. Plans are for it to serve as a meeting place for area civic groups. The volunteer fire station would be torn down and a second building erected, which would function as a welcome center and an interpretive history center for the Northwest area of the county. The group envisions that the combination of these two facilities with Alpine Groves Park across the street will create a civic hub centrally located on the scenic highway.
“Part of the charter of the William Bartram Scenic and Historic Highway organization is to educate residents and visitors on the history of this area and greater St. Johns County,” Abbatiello said. “Our group is also working with other organizations for a contiguous Bartram Trail through Florida. Putnam County’s Bartram Trail group has done a great deal of work towards that end with an interpretive center on the river in Palatka that travelers should experience. This center is similar to what we envision for our interpretive center in St. Johns.”
Roumillat said, “With all of the growth, this area will be transformed forever, but this piece of the William Bartram Scenic Highway can be preserved forever with this restoration. Between Race Track Road and RiverTown is a little piece of Old Florida.”
Photo by Martie Thompson
The Switzerland Community Center sits behind the old volunteer fire department on State Road 13 across from Alpine Groves Park.