PALM HARBOR — The Rheba Sutton White Chapel in downtown Palm Harbor has enjoyed a long and storied history.
The building in this unincorporated North Pinellas community’s historic downtown district starting as a college chapel in the early 1900s. After being destroyed by fire, it was resurrected from the ashes as the Palm Harbor Methodist Church, which served local parishioners for nearly 50 years, from the mid-1920s to the early ’70s.
On Wednesday, March 20, members of the Pinellas County Preservation Board, including its chair, Pinellas County Commissioner Charlie Justice, held a ceremony to unveil a historic marker from the state of Florida honoring the Rheba Sutton White Chapel, at 1190 Georgia Ave., as a local historic site.
“Constructed of bricks and an old bell from a building destroyed by fire, congregants first gathered in 1925 at this church, now known as the Rheba Sutton White Chapel,” Justice told the small crowd that included Pinellas County Commissioner Dave Eggers and Rheba Sutton’s son, Gary.
“The history of this chapel dates back to the earliest days of the Palm Harbor community … and today we are so excited to have you join us as we unveil this historic marker at this important site,” Justice said.
Justice and several other preservation board members then lifted a black sheet revealing the sign, a large, dark metal square with raised white lettering detailing the history of the site.
According to the text, as well as information from the preservation board, the Florida Methodist Conference College relocated its campus to Palm Harbor in 1902, after purchasing the San Marino Hotel. In 1904, the college built an administrative building, along with a 700-seat chapel, adjacent to the hotel; in 1921, a fire destroyed the main school building and the admin buildings.
Using bricks salvaged from the fire and a bell rescued from the school ruins, volunteers built the first Palm Harbor Methodist Church on the site in 1924, and services were held there until 1971.
In 1999, the county purchased the property and later built Harbor Hall, an adjacent reception and event facility. After the historic church was restored using a state grant, in 2003, the White Chapel was named in 2005 for Rheba Sutton, a longtime congregant who dedicated much of her life to the church.
“My mom was born in Palm Harbor and baptized in the church,” Gary Sutton, who lives in Brooksville, said during the ceremony. “I would call her every Sunday and she would always tell me what’s going on at the church. She loved this church. She put a lot of heart and soul, and money, into it, and I can honestly say if it wasn’t for her, this church wouldn’t be here today.”
Longtime Palm Harbor resident Ralph Andrews agreed.
“This church means a lot to the community and to a lot of people, especially the Suttons,” said Andrews, who married his wife, Maryanne, at the chapel in 1968. “They need to preserve things like this in the area, because there’s a lot of history here.”
According to Tom Scofield, a Pinellas County planner and the board’s historic marker specialist, that’s the intent of the state’s program.
“The historic marker program has been around since the 60s. It used to be part of the DOT, and it has since been taken over by the Florida Division of Historical Resources,” Scofield explained, noting there are 30 such signs around the state. “Every year we do four to six markers in places that have regional or statewide historical significance. If we have a good partnership, as we did here with the preservation board, they review it and if it makes it past that stage, we have a marker like this one here.”
Scofield said Palm Harbor was an ideal spot for one of the markers.”
Palm Harbor is the locally designated historic district for unincorporated Pinellas County, Scofield said, adding, “There’s a lot of history here, so it’s great to get a marker here.”
Eggers, a former mayor of Dunedin whose County Commission district covers Palm Harbor, supported that.
“This is one of the most historic areas of the county and this historic designation gives more attention to the chapel and to the Sutton family for what Rheba accomplished here,” he said. “I think the idea of these markers is a great way to preserve the history and relive it in a way. I think it’s great for Palm Harbor.”
When asked how his mother would feel about the historic designation for her favorite church, Gary Sutton replied, “She’d be thrilled that it’s still here and still providing service to the community and keeping the memory alive in Palm Harbor. She was born in an old house two blocks away, and she just loved this building.”