If you’ve passed over the threshold of historic DeLand Hall, you probably know it was the first edifice of Stetson University. What is not common knowledge is the name of the man who designed it, and his leading role in the growth of West Volusia.
John Porter Mace, an architect from Ohio brought his talents as a draftsman, builder, politician, civil engineer, philanthropist, and businessman to the small enclave resort community of Lake Helen around 1884. His life and work in West Volusia were multi-faceted and extensive, yet no significant place markers bear his name. All that remains of his legacy are the surviving structures he designed and built.
Mace was the eldest son of John Hancock Mace and Ellen Porter Mace. At age 18, he served briefly in the Union Army enlisting as a substitute for Phillip Kennedy in the 11th Regiment Ohio Infantry. In March of 1865 he was captured by Confederate forces, but eventually returned to Union custody the following month.
He began his career as an architect and builder in Ohio. On January 4, 1871, he married Mary Luella Poole. For years he was engaged in the contracting business in Cincinnati and established an excellent reputation, but poor health led him to the milder climate in Florida.
Mace settled in an area formerly known as the Prevatt settlement. After Judge Prevatt’s death in 1882, much of the land was purchased by Henry DeLand who had plans for a resort community centered around its largest Lake. It was named Lake Helen after DeLand’s daughter, and later a local resort hotel, the Harlan House, was named for his son.
Mace rolled up his sleeves an went to work helping to build a new community. He designed many of the buildings in Lake Helen and became instrumental to its growth. He served as Lake Helen’s first mayor after its founding in 1888 and subsequently held several offices as alderman, council member and commissioner spanning three decades. His philanthropy and earnest zeal for progress led to the establishment of the Euclid Baptist Church. The group had planned to build their church on a promised lot in DeLand, but the deal fell through, so in 1892 Mace generously gave them a room, rent free and provided a desk, bible, a carpet for the platform.
Many of Mace’s designs were lost to decades of economic stagnation following the Great Depression, but we can glimpse his aesthetic sensibilities through surviving structures and photographs. In 1993, the Lake Helen League for Better Living began the application process and subsequently achieved designation of a historic district in Lake Helen. Mace’s work includes the Congregational church and Blake Memorial Baptist church in Lake Helen.
Several “cottages” he designed and built there are imbued with restrained ornamentation that blends with the landscape. Much the same way that Frank Lloyd Wright designed his turn of the century houses, Mace avoided opulent lines and ornamentation for a more subdued aesthetic. Clean lines that mirrored the grandeur of the tall pines and ample horizons of the Florida landscape.
Mace designed several institutional and municipal buildings such as DeLand Hall, Stetson Hall, and in 1888, the first Volusia County Courthouse in DeLand after the county seat was moved from Enterprise. The building was on the same plot of land on New York Avenue and Indiana where the famous copper clad dome courthouse would later be built.
Remains of his work can also be found in old Coronado just over the causeway in New Smyrna Beach which became the Coronado Historic District in 1997.
Mace continued to support the congregation and was involved in Lake Helen Baptist Church for the rest of his life. Later, the church became Blake Memorial Baptist and is still active. It is among the oldest continually operating Baptist congregations in Florida.
In January 1929, word of Mace’s death at the age of 82 at his home, Edgewood in Lake Helen circulated the local newspapers. He and his wife Luella had recently celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary when they both fell ill with a flu-like illness. Mace recovered and was in DeLand on business the day prior to his death. Luella was still ill when funeral services for her husband were held at Blake Memorial Baptist church. At the conclusion of the funeral, Luella's nurse came with news that Mrs. Mace had passed away during the service. Mr. and Mrs. Mace are interred at Oakdale Cemetery in DeLand.