Sometime soon the Tampa City Council will probably approve a motion to designate the Babe Zaharias Golf Course a historic landmark.
It may be the least hotly debated land-use decision they face this year. The designation won't cost the city, which owns the Babe, a cent, and the people who live in the neighborhood, myself included, are likely to see property values rise as a result. Historic landmark designation officially acknowledges the significance of a structure or district and encourages its preservation while discouraging major alterations or destruction.
Many of the current residents in the neighborhood surrounding the Babe have lived here since the 1950s or even earlier and have seen the course closed and threatened with being parceled out for development.
The move to designate the Babe was initiated by Pat Austin-Dillon, an active member of the Forest Hills neighborhood association. She wanted to make sure it never faced such a threat again. People who know and love the Babe are largely enthusiastic in their support of her efforts.
But there has been some consternation over exactly what is going to be landmarked, and that issue threatened to throw a monkey wrench into the whole deal.
Austin-Dillon's initial request was for landmarking the golf course only. One criterion that might earn a place landmark status is association with a famous person, explained Annie Hart, administrator of the city's Historic Preservation Commission. Since Babe Didrickson Zaharias, one of the most famous female athletes of the 20th century, once owned the course now named for her, it seemed appropriate to use that angle in the application for designation.
However, the golf course was built much earlier, and its pre-Babe history marks one of the more interesting and formative periods in city and state history. It was built as part of a grand country club development in the 1920s at the tail end of the land boom. Developer B.L. Hammer staged celebrity promotional events such as a boxing exhibition with prizefighter Jack Dempsey; he also provided airplane and pilot for aerial tours of the development. The Tudor-style clubhouse and homes were typical of the architectural eccentricity that characterized land boom developments, many of which had Spanish, Arabian and Italian themes.
The clubhouse burned down a long time ago, and only a handful of Tudor houses were built before the boom went bust. Some have been altered almost beyond recognition.
Still, it would be nice to preserve what little is left of that time. So Hart decided to add those houses for landmark consideration.
That's when things got a little sticky. Only nine Tudor houses are left, and the owners of every one of them showed up at a neighborhood meeting to discuss landmarking the Babe with Hart. If your house is landmarked, you get some limited tax breaks on the increased property value that results from restoration. But what you can do to the house is also severely restricted — and in some cases, quite costly and niggling.
Naturally, there was resistance among some of the Tudor homeowners, though some had already done considerable restoration work. One of the most vocal opponents was the owner of a house that wasn't even on the designation list but probably should have been, given the chief criterion for the golf course designation. He owns the house Babe and her husband George built in the 1950s when they moved here and reopened the golf course. The owner had just replaced the beautiful but expensive and leaky barrel tile roof with a nondescript gray shingle one, something he would never have been allowed to do had the house been landmarked.
People asked repeatedly if they had any control over whether their homes would be landmarked. Hart told them that the city wouldn't designate their properties against their will. But after being pressed repeatedly on the issue, she did finally admit that the city could do it, whether the homeowners agreed or not.
After much discussion, the neighbors requested that Hart separate the landmark request for the course from the one for the houses.
That will help get the golf course through the process without much, if any, opposition. But people in the neighborhood are wary now. We have come face to face with the old public good vs. private rights debate and the question of how much power government should have in deciding what's good for us.
Historic preservation is essential to the fabric of a city and the people who live there. And the government has a responsibility to ensure that places of historic significance are preserved. But we should always be troubled by trespasses on individual rights, even when they might be for the public good.
Homeowners would be much more likely to cooperate voluntarily if strict preservation and restoration standards came with real incentives, such as financial and technical assistance.
Besides, if the Babe is going to be landmarked because of its connection to Zaharias instead of its land boom roots, then the 1950s houses around it are the ones that should be preserved. They represent her time in Tampa and her influence on the development of this portion of the city. They represent the great American dream home of the postwar boom.
At some time after the Babe is landmarked, those houses could well be in danger. More people will discover the convenience and natural beauty of the neighborhood. That's when they'll start buying up the modest but wonderfully stylized 1950s ranches and tearing them down to make room for those monstrous generic houses designed around closets the size of small European nations and garages large enough to hold his and hers Hummers.
Contributing Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at [email protected].