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Urban Stimuli: Meet CW a.k.a. Carolyn Wilson

Carolyn Wilson, best known as CW, is the owner and designer at CW's Gin Joint in downtown Tampa.

Carolyn Wilson, aka CW, stands in front of vintage photos at the entrance of CW's Gin Joint.

(L-R) Susannah Smith, Cody Tiner, and Carolyn Wilson (CW) at CW's Gin Joint.

Head Chef Cody Tiner, left, shares a moment with CW inside the Gin Joint.

(L-R) Susannah Smith, Cody Tiner, and CW at CW's Gin Joint.

It’s rare to find a true influencer in today’s noisy urban landscape. Over-filtered digital personas and self-proclaimed tastemakers are paid for their ability to promote a brand or a product to thousands of “followers,” but it all rings hollow to most thinking people. It’s clear the battle is for eyeballs and clicks rather than genuine, moving human experiences.

Authentic arbiters of taste operate quietly, driven more by their own curiosity and instincts than by the prevailing trends (and perhaps a bottom line). They’re traveled, humble, and willing to take risks. 

Carolyn Wilson is just such a person. Known as “CW” to her friends, she is the owner of The Wilson Company, The Vault, and CW’s Gin Joint in downtown Tampa.

Preferring to remain in the background, she is initially quite shy. Indeed, in her endearing Montgomery AL accent, she admitted that she was nervous to meet me.

Once we got to chatting over glasses of Caymus cabernet, though, the details of her hobbies and inspirations began to unfold.

For starters, she’s an avid equestrian.

We spoke at length about The Tabulator, her juvenile racehorse with surprise potential for national celebrity, just missing the qualification to compete in the 2018 Kentucky Derby. This is a sport I am completely foreign to, but the connection to Tampa and to CW is one I found novel.

Surprise #2: she doesn’t live in South Tampa, like so many other influential landowners do. Properties in Odessa and Ocala are where she finds solitude with the horses she breeds, raises and trains for the competition circuit, and then retires.

If you ask CW how many horses she has had in her lifetime, she says: “I’ve lost count!”

The Gin Joint

Subjectively speaking, CW’s Gin Joint isn’t my preferred decor style or even menu assortment. I skew more modern and contemporary, still with the warmth of home. Along the lines of Ichicoro/Ane, recently opened at Station House in St. Pete.

Nevertheless, after spending an evening with CW and her daughter Susannah, as a follow-up to a Development News item I wrote in October for 83 Degrees, I more fully appreciate the thought behind the Gin Joint. 

The marks of CW’s precise taste are all around; her unique point of view is apparent on everything from pillows to the rotating flavors of deviled eggs on the menu, to staff members who genuinely seem to love her. I lost count of all the hugs she got throughout the evening, from servers, bartenders, kitchen staff, and even the lead vocalist, dressed in a ruby red satin gown.

CW installed her personal flair for decor -- artwork from her home and finds from places like Schiller’s Architectural Salvage in West Tampa -- in order to make the Gin Joint a personal expression. But she didn’t ignore the key to a successful eatery: a star team, each of whom she knows well, by name, with stories aplenty.

Chef Gui Alinat is the executive chef, helping CW blend French brasserie fare with modern comfort food inspired by southern and latin cooking. Head Chef Cody Tiner is a kind young face with an obvious passion for elevated dining.

Dean Hurst (of Bern’s, The Epicurean, and Haven) designed the cocktail program, which includes a “gin matrix” in which 30+ gins are plotted according to four qualities: citrus, savory, juniper, and floral. If ever there was an ultimate hangout for gin lovers, this is it.

Unlike other new developments designed for the photo-op generation, CW’s is best experienced at night, in soft lighting, paired with good conversation. A place where you forget about your phone and get lost in the live jazz, a strong old fashioned, ample cheese plate, and binge-able portobello fries.

This happened to me, but it was as much the menu and ambiance as it was the company.

The Franklin Exchange

Other than containing the corporate offices for The Wilson Company and conveniently, CW’s first foray into hospitality and entertainment, the Franklin Exchange building is now dead-center of the blossoming Downtown Tampa nightlife district. 

Franklin Street is frenzied during the day with office workers, delivery trucks, and tourists, at established points like Indigo Coffee, SoFresh, and Bavaro’s. It’s now a place where you’ll struggle to find parking nearly any time you go.

With our temperate weather and the wet zoning of most of the Franklin Exchange block, CW’s next project is the northwest corner courtyard facing Zack Street. She plans to open a patio lounge area -- a sort of extension of the Gin Joint bar. Whereas inside is cozy and plush, this new outdoor area will offer an authentic sidewalk atmosphere, which we sometimes lack in Tampa. 

The new patio will enhance the feeling that Downtown is alive.

The Future (Kress, etc.)

CW is an urban visionary, the kind that Tampa and many other cities desperately need. While plenty of influencers and proprietors launch new ventures to mixed fanfare, not all of them are as thoughtful, exacting, and humble as she.

And just like that, under the radar and to the relief of many historic preservationists, CW purchased the Kress block, just north of her present holdings.

The block in question, snuggled between The Element residential high-rise and the federal courthouse, is actually four separate structures which include the 1929 Kress building and former site of Woolworth’s, where a desegregation sit-in occurred in 1960 at the “whites-only” lunch counter.

That particular set of buildings has sat empty for decades, forlornly referencing a different time in our city’s history. Instead of falling into the hands of an owner who would sooner raze the structures to create more surface parking (and pedestrian dead-zones), CW’s only definite conviction is: She has big plans for restoration.

CW is especially adamant about reestablishing that lunch counter, and reinforcing the concept of equality and harmony in daily life for Tampa urbanites.

My inclination is that CW should include some sort of retail element in the space(s), since Downtown is so lacking in retail cohesion. 

With the Gin Joint and The Vault as precedents, I can only imagine the tasteful elegance, creativity, and attention to detail that CW and her team will bring to the restoration plans at the Kress, Woolworth, and related urban spaces over the coming years.

CW understands placemaking, and we are lucky to have her in our city.

Urban Stimuli is a monthly column in 83 Degrees dedicated to lifestyle and cultural innovations that are transforming Tampa’s urban core. These developments are making our city more exciting, vivacious and praiseworthy for visitors, newcomers and natives alike.

To suggest additional story ideas, email 83 Degrees.

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Read more articles by Alex English.

Alex English is a Tampa native who has lived in Sarasota, Seattle, New York, Bordeaux and Milan. He is passionate about urban development, retail and style, and publishes Remarqed, a personal blog on those subjects.
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