Transforming Tampa Bay: Preservation — it's to love

In St. Pete, awards to the people and projects that give the city heart.

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"After" shot of Urban Comfort Restaurant, which won an award for commercial adaptive reuse. - St. Pete Preservation
St. Pete Preservation
"After" shot of Urban Comfort Restaurant, which won an award for commercial adaptive reuse.

Love the quality. Love the craftsmanship. Love the materials. Love the character.

There are so many reasons why we love old buildings, and our passions for them sometimes share the irrationality of romantic love. The objects of our affection may be impossible to live with, but they’re so beautiful. Even if we know their flaws, we still want to be with them because they speak directly to our hearts.

But buildings do have an advantage: We can spackle their cracks and fissures, while the holes in our hearts don’t heal quite so easily. And buildings can age gracefully with new doors and a new roof; so far, even with the best efforts of botox and plastic surgery, we don’t.

In this season of affection, St. Petersburg Preservation (SPP) has chosen to recognize outstanding examples of historic preservation with awards celebrating successes. Too often our tales of preservation are full of doom and gloom, so it’s a delight to toast achievement.

The bi-annual SPP Awards are determined by a panel of local architects, planners, and preservationists (including me) after soliciting nominations throughout the community. The 2017 ceremony was held Wednesday, Feb. 8 at the historic (natch) St. Petersburg Women’s Club on Snell Isle.

As SPP Board President Emily Elwyn explained, “These 21 awards are a wonderful celebration of all the excellent work that’s going on throughout our city… from funky gas station conversions to lovingly restored bungalows. Each of these projects contributes to keeping St. Pete special.”

You can read the complete list of award winners at stpetepreservation.org, but I’ve selected several to share here, beginning with St. Petersburg City Council member Darden Rice, who received the President’s Award for her dependable leadership.

As the First Block drama unfolds, Darden Rice continues to raise her voice for stewardship of the ’Burg’s history. Mayor Kriseman adds, “Darden Rice stands with our preservation community, and I thank her for her leadership on behalf of historic St. Pete.”

Adaptive reuse means that you take a structure whose original use is passé and repurpose it, thus keeping the rhythm of the neighborhood but not the same tune. Since Central Avenue once had a variety of gas stations, it’s fun to see how these distinctive buildings have found new life.

The Award of Honor for commercial adaptive reuse went to the Urban Comfort Restaurant at 2601 Central. These clever folks transformed a service station’s hardscape into a game area for their patrons. Shuffleboard courts now grace the pump areas as well as bean bag toss — a cool evolution of form.

St. Petersburg loves its flamingos, but Sunken Gardens’ original flock from 1956 had diminished to 60-year-old George and Lucy. Fortunately, some civic-minded individuals, led by Robin Reed and bolstered by the enthusiastic Sunken Gardens staff, launched a campaign, “Flamingoes Forever,” to fund the purchase of 20 young birds to invigorate the flock.

Three years of raising money resulted in a midsummer celebration to welcome 20 flamingoes transported from the San Antonio Zoo. This local initiative was appropriately bestowed an Award of Honor for Living Traditions.

Successful preservation projects depend upon meticulous craftsmanship, and it’s a gift to the community when these restorations are public for all to enjoy.  Such a delight is the Snell Arcade, located at the corner of Central Avenue and 4th Street in the epicenter of town, which won the Award of Honor for Technology and Craftsmanship. This mid-rise dating from the 1920s is lavishly decorated in a number of architectural styles, mostly Mediterranean Revival. The building has undergone many episodes of change, and the painstaking work on the roof adds richness to the St. Petersburg skyline.

This year, a telling new category emerged. The Award of Honor Back from the Brink was presented for the Fannye Ponder Meeting House, 1835 9th Avenue South, to the Council of Negro Women and All Trades Restoration/Cassie Hollis, owner. Since the 1940s, this modest wood-frame structure has been the gathering spot for political initiatives by women in the black community.

When Cassie Hollis first saw the building, she said, “It was desperately in need of  work, leaning to one side, and termite-damaged.” Using a State of Florida grant and making no profit on the project, she worked closely with Angela Rouson to accurately restore it.

The Meeting House’s interior has been updated to serve the community’s needs, and Hollis reflected on the value of this effort. “Our firm is committed to preserving history, and whether the project is glitzy or modest, we pour our hearts into saving these structures.”

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