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Restoration of 1930s jazz club could lead revival of neighborhood

Restoration of 1930s jazz club could lead revival of neighborhood

By Michael Van Sickler, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 24, 2002

WEST PALM BEACH -- Robert Saunders couldn't have picked a better place to build the Sunset Cocktail Lounge in 1933.

Segregation made 609 Eighth St. the choicest piece of real estate in the city for a jazz club. Located in the center of the Northwest Neighborhood, the Sunset was one of the only joints in town where the premier musicians of the day could play. The resorts of Palm Beach and the white sections of West Palm Beach wouldn't allow black performers.

On any given weekend night for the next 25 years, Nat "King" Cole, Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie could be heard jamming until 2 a.m. at the Sunset, which was then the anchor of a thriving strip of restaurants, clubs and shops along Rosemary Avenue.

"When Louis Armstrong performed, more whites than anyone else turned out to attend," said Thelma Starks, who now owns the building. "We were at the center of things. Everyone dressed up to go there, it was so glamorous. It meant everything to us."

The original lounge had a roof garden, service station and garage.

Today, second-floor apartments occupy the space once reserved for the dance floor and the bands. Dust from a CSR Rinker Materials concrete plant a block away hangs in the air. Broken glass sprinkles the empty field of crab grass and sand where homes once stood across from the Sunset.

"Integration was good, but what we have now is not what I fought for," Starks said. "We lost all our businesses and a sense of who we are."

That sense of loss is echoed in a report by Stull and Lee Inc., a Boston consulting company paid $170,000 by the city to study the Northwest Neighborhood. In a report released last week to city commissioners, the firm recommends restoring Rosemary Avenue's Jazz Age eminence by creating a thematic district with the Sunset at its core.

The report recommends a park opposite the building to host jazz shows. Nearby buildings would be modeled after the three-story Sunset.

The report is a long way from becoming a reality.

Commissioners would have to rally behind it, and Mayor Joel Daves would have to push many of the report's recommendations, some of which come with a price tag. For instance, a recommendation to rehabilitate about 15 vacant historic buildings and 30 other buildings would cost about $2.7 million.

But the report's preservation philosophy is a marked departure from the mind-set of the past 50 years that demolitions are the remedy to blight.

Since 1953, about 300 residential structures have been demolished in the neighborhood.

Existing buildings "are the only historic link, with the exception of the church structures, between the African-American community that once lived there and the Northwest Neighborhood today," the report states.

"If many more structures are lost, that link may be broken and the area will lose its historic designation as well as much of its scale, charm and uniqueness and its sense of place."

Daves likens the Sunset's potential to that of the 1926 First Methodist Church, which was restored and is now the centerpiece of CityPlace.

"Maybe we should do the same with the old club," Daves said. "It's certainly an option that the city could acquire it. But we haven't gotten to that point."

Until then, the only hint of the Sunset's historical legacy rests in the memories of the club's former patrons.

Preston Tillman recalls going there on Saturday nights, dressed in his "Sunday's best" and watching everyone in town try to show off their latest dance moves.

"It was the only place we could go for our evening's entertainment," said Tillman, 85.

"It was a beautiful place. They heard about us up in Harlem, we were so big. It was our thing."

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