You see the yellow building cranes and the ubiquitous orange traffic cones and know that our economy is reheating and development is kicking in. But what about the buildings which connect us to our history? How are they faring?
Here’s an update on four significant structures whose future is iffy. If you care about any of them, you might direct some energy their way — donations, elbow grease, prayer.
They are all on life support.
The Jackson House
When black musicians played in Tampa before integration, they stayed at the Jackson Rooming House across from Tampa Union Station. Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown, Billie Holiday and Cab Calloway were among the talented guests of this 24-room lodging close to Central Avenue, the African-American community’s main thoroughfare and the site of all of the clubs.
Built in 1901 as a six-room wooden cottage, the peaked-roof, brick-chimneyed structure grew, adding more rooms and a second floor. The business stayed in the family and flourished during segregation, closing its doors in 1989.
Now the vividly painted front porches leak and the roof sags precariously. The City of Tampa is fining the owner, third-generation family member Willie Robinson, $75 a day for code enforcement violations. Matthew Depin of Bracken Engineering has estimated that the cost of repairs — roof reconstruction, membrane installation and foundation shoring — would be $165,000.
Last week’s torrential rains caused additional damage, but Willie is heartened by the recent rallying of local support for the house.
Doug Belden, Hillsborough County’s tax collector, and Marvin Knight, business owner, have pledged to lead a variety of generous donors, from attorneys and structural engineers to Athena Society members and college students, to stabilize and restore this historic site.
Robinson commented, “It lifted my spirits to get help from my town and I am proud to be a Tampanian.” If you’d like to get involved, go to JacksonRoomingHouse.org.
The Guida House
This intriguing but beleaguered example of Mid-Century Modern architecture was the optimistic expression of “Mr. West Tampa,” George Guida, at the height of his life. Guida’s role as a contractor and owner of a home furnishings and decorating business gave him access to the early-1950s design trends du jour — curved facade, ribbon windows, snappy tiles — and his home, built adjacent to MacFarlane Park, showed them off. The founder of the Central Bank of Tampa, Guida built Jesuit High School, Rey Park and a number of other civic buildings, he made his home a gathering spot for the movers and shakers of West Tampa as well as a showplace for modern design.
In 1984, after the interstate split West Tampa in two, the yellow brick structure was acquired by the City of Tampa, which intended to add to the park area by demolishing the house. Fortunately, a group formed to protect the building and it was designated a local landmark in 2004.
Tampa Preservation, Inc. came to the rescue with funding to “mothball” the residence until a user came forward. TPI President Becky Clarke explained, “Like the people of West Tampa, the Guida House is special, and its architecture and history deserve protection.”
Everyone agrees that the best reuse for this property would be as an event space for weddings and other special occasions. The City of Tampa issued a request for proposals (RFP) in 2009, which was not a great time for real estate deals. Nothing happened.
Jason Busto, longtime advocate for West Tampa, observed, “People spent time, money and hope to protect the Guida House and we turned it over to the City in good faith.” The Mayor’s Office promises to issue another RFP, but doesn’t give a timetable.
Okay, Mayor Buckhorn. Let’s move on putting this building out there to get fixed up and earn its keep!
The Belleview Biltmore
“The White Queen of the Gulf,” the affectionate name for the Belleview Biltmore, belies the fact that the Queen needs serious work. She has survived for 110 years, but her future is unclear.
“Don’t give up hope!” was Stephen Fowler’s clear message to me as he mused upon the hotel’s current situation. Fowler, an architect, serves as vice mayor of the town of Belleair and advisor for the Planning and Zoning Committee, which oversees land use decisions.
He observed that the Vinoy Hotel in St. Petersburg sat vacant for 10 years with pigeons and racoons as its only guests. After renovation and expansion, the Vinoy now contributes mightily to the city’s tax base and has served as a catalyst to redevelopment in its corner of downtown.
Fowler emphasized the local tax revenues generated by the Belleview, and says that the tourist development dollars it could generate would be far more plentiful than the property taxes from the residential development its owners want to build.
The Ades Brothers from Miami control the property. They envision the hotel being razed and replaced with over 100 condos and townhouses. They have to first develop a schematic plan, apply for and receive a demolition permit, rezone the property, change the comprehensive plan and get a height variance.
Their first demolition permit expired and the process will take at least six months. The Biltmore’s neighbors, tired of seeing “The Lady” in bad shape, are understandably eager to see the property improved.
Fowler opines, “My #1 goal is to see the hotel and cottages restored.”
The good news for St. Petersburg’s historic Downtown YMCA is that seven “angels” have appeared to pay the $8,000 monthly lease on the 51,000-square-foot property, so its future is secure for the moment.
Thomas Nestor, leader of the effort to save this 1927 Mediterranean Revival stucco building, is working to transform it into a “music mansion.” As a conservatory, this large structure could contain an education center, recording studio, radio station and concert venue.
The final cost of underwriting Nestor’s vision would be between $5-$7 million. This wonderful building needs a new life, but in a market where a number of music venues are already vying for the same audience share, this proposed reuse might not be the wisest.