The downtown Gainesville building that once housed Saul’s, a popular downtown women’s clothing store, has stood largely intact on the square since 1900, including a brush with the tornado of 1936.
The future of the sturdy two-story brick structure is the big question.
Amid a sea of activity that’s taken over downtown, the building’s owner, Lawrence “Lorry” Schrage, has held onto the property since closing the store in 2018.
The building at 100 Main St. has been vacant since closing, a “For Sale” sign tacked onto the front door. Items from the Saul’s days, including display cases, mirrors and an employee time clock, are scattered about the building, which extends along Washington Street to Maple Street.
Peeling away layers, the building reveals its long history.
Pieces of the former store’s drop ceiling have been removed and placed in piles against a wall, revealing the original, decorative tile ceiling.
Schrage, during a visit last week to the building, recalled some people visiting the store in the 1970s admiring the tile ceiling and suggesting it be preserved.
“I didn’t do it because I didn’t think my customer would understand it,” he said. “But I was wrong. (Preserving the tiles) would have been great.”
Paint is chipping away on the tiles, “but many of them are in great shape,” Schrage said.
He also has sales signs from McLellan’s, a discount store that preceded Saul’s and extends at least to the era around the tornado of April 6, 1936. One of the signs advertises a special on “Ladies shorts” at 49 cents, with the suggestion to “use our lay-away plan.”
“History is interesting and sometimes surprising,” he said. “And a lot of it gets lost. It’s sad.”
In the tornado, the old building was caught up in one of Gainesville history’s most tragic events. The storm killed more than 200 people and tore apart much of the square, completely demolishing a building just a few doors away from McLellan’s that now is occupied by Main Street Market.
“This was one of the few buildings left standing, and people came in there to get medicine and stuff for people who were hurt,” Schrage said. “It’s a tough building.”
A 2019 article in The Times describes how Susie Mayes was working at McLellan’s when the storm struck. Students were on their way to school, and many of them crowded into McLellan’s and crouched with employees on the floor. Nobody was injured in that building, she said.
Saul’s took over the building in the mid-1970s, but its history goes back to 1939. It started out on Washington Street in a building now occupied by Atlas Pizza. Then, Saul’s moved to the other side of the square on Spring Street, where Gainesville Renaissance is being built.
When the store closed, Schrage, who took over the business after his father, William “Bill” Schrage, died in 2001, said, “I think we were due to do this, mainly because I didn’t have the steam to do what I needed to do to be successful. It’s a different world.”
A passerby recognizing Schrage as he stood outside the building last week asked him about prospects for the space. “It’s in a good location,” she said.
“I have three people wanting it really badly, but I don’t know where it’s going,” he said.
The downtown area certainly is going through a makeover. Streets are being rebuilt as part of the city’s streetscaping efforts. And new developments are moving in, including Gainesville Renaissance and The National, a multi-use complex that will feature apartments and a 7-story Courtyard by Marriott.
“What the city is doing is, I think, very good,” Schrage said. “It’s changing a lot, and a lot of people are going to have to change.”