Gone with the Wind

Our vanishing legacy

click to enlarge DISAPPEARING HISTORY: The endangered Guida - House is another piece of West Tampa's fading past. - LISA MAURIELLO
DISAPPEARING HISTORY: The endangered Guida House is another piece of West Tampa's fading past.

Sometimes it takes a person with a fresh perspective to teach us to appreciate the things we take for granted. Last week, the city's attention focused momentarily on Harry Wolf's fabulous building at the corner of Ashley Drive and Kennedy Boulevard in downtown Tampa. (I still can't bring myself to call this exquisite piece of architecture the "beer can building." The words stick in my throat much like canned beer.) Seems the folks filming The Punisher thought the dramatic six-story cubes at the base of the tower would make a sensational set for Saints and Sinners, the bar owned by John Travolta's character in the film.

St. Petersburg Times writer Dong-Phuong Nguyen described the building as "boring, by most accounts" in a recent story, but said a publicist for the filmmakers called it "spectacular." After seeing it used as a set for a glamorous nightclub, Times columnist Ernest Hooper figured out it would be a great place for a real one.

That's actually pretty close to the use Wolf originally imagined. In a telephone interview several months ago, he said he always envisioned the cubes as an open, airy, skylit public space — "a sort of Florida room writ large, the scene of concerts spilling out to the reflecting pools to the north." (The pools, a part of Dan Kiley's garden, were destroyed by the city.) I hope that when we see the building on the big screen, being used the way the architect intended, we will finally see what a marvelous structure it is.

If only a Hollywood director would discover West Tampa now, we might begin to appreciate another treasure we are losing piece by piece, before it's gone with the wind.One piece we could lose is the Guida house, built by George Guida in 1953. It's significant for a couple of reasons: architecturally because it's one of the few — perhaps only — pieces of Art Moderne architecture in the region, and historically because Guida was a community leader and one of the few successful Latins who chose to stay and build his mansion in West Tampa instead of assimilating and moving to south Tampa when he got rich, as many of his contemporaries did.

The house is part of the vital living historical record of West Tampa. Much of the picture has already been destroyed through neglect and consequent demolition. Carnegie Mellon University historian Kenya Dworkin points out that of the 88 West Tampa buildings identified for the Florida Historic Trails Association tour, 67 have already been torn down. That's 76 percent of the most identifiable historic buildings gone. We should be ashamed of that.

The city acquired the Guida house 10 years ago and has allowed it to deteriorate to the point that it will now be very expensive to restore. Bob Harrell, Director of Business and Housing Development for the city of Tampa, estimates the cost at $1.5-million, though others, who prefer not to be identified, say that figure is inflated.

The house was slated to be demolished to make room for a Boys & Girls Club, whose building will be razed to make room for a freeway expansion. A group led by Jason Busto gathered more than 500 signatures on a petition to halt the process. Guida was a major benefactor of the B&G Club, and club president Roy Opfer, in deference to his legacy has now relinquished the club's claim on the building. That puts the club in a bad situation; they have to find a new site and begin the construction bidding by December so they can break ground by April if they are to move in by Jan. 11, 2005, when they must vacate their current site.

But the Guida house is still not safe from destruction because there is no money to halt its deterioration, let alone restore it and find a use for it. The city has pretty much washed its hands of the whole mess, saying it's up to the B&G club to find its own site and to Busto's group to come up with a plan for an appropriate use for the building and a way to raise money for its restoration.

The city also is in no hurry to designate the house as an historic structure, which would limit what it could do with the building. "It's only 50 years old," says Bob Harrell, who labels himself a preservationist. "That means it just barely qualifies as an historic structure." Miami Beach's rapidly decaying Deco District was only 30 years old in the 1970s when Barbara Capitman waged a war to save it. Now it's one of the city's most flaunted jewels, attracting visitors — and filmmakers — from around the world.

It's true that every old building cannot be saved. And it is true, as Harrell points out, that the city has saved several historically significant buildings, although the quality of some restoration is marginal. But it has let many more sink into such disrepair that they could not be restored.

A presenter at a recent Creative Tampa Bay pow wow talked about how Spain put itself on the cultural map by building a fabulous art museum designed by superstar architect Frank Gehry in Bilbao — an example we are attempting to copy by building an art museum designed by minor celebrity architect Rafael Vinoly.

What she neglected to say was that Spain also preserved and restored historic areas such as Barcelona's centuries-old Gothic quarter and unique architecture such as the wildly phantasmagoric buildings of Antoni Gaudi — the centerpiece of tours of the city. That's the reason people go to Spain — because there is no place else on the planet like it, because you can see the layers of its history, the mark of individuals and ethnic groups and events utterly unique to that place.

If we don't learn soon to appreciate and preserve what we have left, the only thing anyone will want to film here in the future will be a McDonald's commercial, where a generic landscape is a good thing.

Senior Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at 813-248-8888 ext. 122 or [email protected] lyplanet.com.