Community effort to get downtown Tampa's John F. Germany Library named local historic landmark

Amy Espinosa moved to Tampa as a teenager, which was the first time she visited the John F. Germany Library downtown.

She has loved it ever since. She introduced her sons to the library when they were little. There, in addition to checking out books they liked, they could take part in fun classes like 3-D printing, robotics, coding and art programs.

So she was dismayed when she learned in 2017 of plans to demolish the library annex, a four-story building behind the main library. It came down in 2019; the 31-story luxury residential tower called Arts and Entertainment Residences is now under construction on that spot.

“I decided I needed to do what I could do to preserve and save the library from that same fate,’’ she says. “It’s just not an area that people are looking at to preserve, so I decided that I didn’t need permission and I’m going to do what I can to get the (historic) designation moving forward.’’

Since then, scores have joined the effort. In January, Espinosa and friends achieved a preliminary victory when the Tampa Historic Preservation Commission voted to recommend the historic landmark designation to the Tampa City Council. 

“The architecture, the art and the diversity of the people, and the fact that it was a gateway to endless knowledge, made a lasting impression on me at the age of 15,’’ Espinosa told the board.

The commission's recommendation goes to the Hillsborough County City-County Planning Commission for review and its recommendation. It is then expected to be presented to the City Council in the spring, according to the historic preservation staff.

The local historic landmark designation better protects the building from alterations or demolition, explains Tampa’s Architectural Review and Historic Preservation Manager Dennis Fernandez.

“There’s an architectural review process that is applied to any modifications that might be proposed to the exterior of the building. So if there were to be major changes, it would be reviewed by either my staff or board to make sure they were compatible with the design and history of the building,’’ Fernandez says. 

“There’s a heightened review for a building that is historically designated in the event that someone proposes demolition,” Fernandez adds. “That’s not anticipated but that’s just within the protective measures of the ordinance.’’

Unique architectural style

The main library, which opened in 1968, is an “excellent example’’ of the mid-century modern architecture style, states a report by Fernandez and Heather Bonds, historic preservation specialist. The main entrance of the Tampa Public Library in 1999, a few months before the name change to John F. Germany Public Library.The style is apparent in the building’s large concrete pillars, wide arcade, vertical travertine panels, glass multi-story windows plus a wrap-around honeycomb feature on the top floor, it states. An auditorium was built behind the original library, which Espinosa says is “actually my favorite piece of architecture downtown.’’

The buildings were designed by the architectural firms of McLane, Ranon, McIntosh & Bernardo and McElvy & Jennewein. The double-domed auditorium was designed by Gus Paras and Angel Oliva Jr. of the McElvy & Jennewein firm.
The report states that Oliva, interviewed last year, attributed his inspiration for the auditorium to the unique multi-domed shapes of the Tropicana Night Club in Havana, Cuba.

“With a small but visibly significant area to work with, he wanted the auditorium to have an independent but contemporary design to the library,’’ the report states. “The rounded shape aimed to offset the broad sharp angles of the main library. The honeycomb feature was utilized to connect the two structures while allowing natural light into the otherwise windowless auditorium.
The base of the auditorium was designed by Gus Paras who utilized a design inspired by America’s most notable modern architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Described as ‘Wrightian,” the base has two geometric pyramidal layers and is made of cementitious stone.”

The report notes that until the new library was built, Tampa’s main library was the Tampa Free Library at 102 E. 7th Ave., built in 1917 with funds provided by the Carnegie Foundation. As Tampa’s population grew, the city needed a new, larger central library. It serves as the main library of the Tampa-Hillsborough library system, which has branches throughout the county. In 1976 the annex was added. Visitors walked through a Plexiglas-covered ramp from the main library to get to the annex.

Preserving a piece of downtown’s history

In 1999, the building was named the John F. Germany Library, after the prominent judge, lawyer and community leader who served as president of Friends of the Library and led the effort to build the downtown library.In this January 2013 photo, John F. Germany celebrates his 90th birthday in the library that bears his name. Germany passed away in 2015 at age 92. Lawyer John Mullen, current president of Friends of the John F. Germany Library, told the city's Historic Preservation Commission that the library should be saved because it is historically significant, architecturally significant and is still a vibrant community asset.

“The building has served our city well for nearly 60 years, and we’re eager for that to continue for years to come,’’ he said.

“I can attest that with the recent influx of residents in the several large apartment buildings and condominiums downtown within easy walking distance, the library is today a more vibrant and well-used space than it has been ever since the 1960s and 1970s.’’

Elena Paras Ketchum, daughter of Paras, also addressed the Historic Preservation Commission, telling the members there is no other building like the library in downtown Tampa or the surrounding area.

“By designating, we are safeguarding Tampa’s heritage,’’ she said. “The building is not only a reflection of our city’s architectural history but our social history as well.’’

Ketchum joined the cause early on after meeting Espinosa, who interviewed her father and two other original architects, Oliva and James Jennewein – who died in 2022 – for her research on the library’s history.

Ketchum says she and Espinosa started talking about the older buildings around town
and the mid-century modern style of architecture, “and we really focused in on the John F. Germany Library and Auditorium as one that needed protection” because of its community contribution and the community events that continue to take place there.

“And given the growth around the area, it seemed like a building that should be preserved for Tampa, particularly for downtown,” Ketchum says. “It seemed like a natural fit in the Arts District there. You have the museum, the Straz Center, so it seemed like there was a natural corridor of arts and learning right there, and that we really needed to do something to protect that building and the architectural style.”

The effort dovetails with Espinosa’s business, Dots & Cubes, an information architecture and design consulting firm that helps create “spaces where people want to spend their time,’’ according to its website.

“The project I’m working on is to preserve stories of a place and attach them to the place,’’ Espinosa says.

A tour group during the April 21, 1968 dedication of the Tampa Public Library.Jennewein’s daughter, Gigi Jennewein, also attended the meeting, though she did not address the board. She was a young girl at the time the library was designed, but says she remembers lots of conversations about it.

“I recall that it was extremely important in our household,’’ she says. “The design and building of this was a big deal.’’

To read the historic landmark report, go to John F. Germany Library report.

For more information, go to History of the John F. Germany Library and Who is John F. Germany.
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Philip Morgan is a freelance writer living in St. Petersburg. He is an award-winning reporter who has covered news in the Tampa Bay area for more than 50 years. Phil grew up in Miami and graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in journalism. He joined the Lakeland Ledger, where he covered police and city government. He spent 36 years as a reporter for the former Tampa Tribune. During his time at the Tribune, he covered welfare and courts and did investigative reporting before spending 30 years as a feature writer. He worked as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times for 12 years. He loves writing stories about interesting people, places and issues.