What’s next for Tampa’s historic buildings?

Historic buildings in the Tampa Bay Area are experiencing a renaissance as new investors dive into the process of restoration and renovation that promises a whole new purpose. 

Many of these buildings have stood dormant for decades and are primed for their next owners to breathe new life into them. Meanwhile, other buildings are undergoing updates to bring them up to speed to today’s needs and city codes. All are being repurposed with the common mission of preserving the past while adapting for the future. 

Several projects in the Tampa area are seeing old, long-vacant properties being reimagined as new beacons of residential, commercial, and educational opportunity.

Below are a few examples.

Remembering the Moseleys and the Jacksons
Sitting secluded in a wooded enclave off a Brandon artery is the Moseley House, just waiting for an opportunity to share its story with the world. It was built by the Moseley family in 1886 and until recently served as the home for that clan of Brandon pioneers. 

The last member of the family, Julia Winifred Moseley, died on August 9, 2020, at the age of 101. But before she passed away, she had the foresight to create a trust to protect the 15-acre property and its various structures from surrounding development. Her mission was for the property to be used in a way that enriches the community. 

It’s a mission that Dr. Lori Collins of the University of South Florida Libraries Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections (USF DHHC) lovingly takes to heart. She and her team of three-dimensional specialists, archaeologists, environmental scientists, geographers, and college students are taking great pains to photograph, measure, and catalog each building and every artifact at the Moseley property.

The goal is to create a digital record of the premises as plans materialize on how to best preserve this Brandon landmark true to Moseley’s wishes.
“It’s almost like forensics for buildings,” explains Collins of the laser-enabled digitizing process that is building a precise virtual picture of the Moseley spread. “It’s like taking a CT scan of a building, visually slicing through walls and other structures so we can get a better idea on what’s inside.”
The innovative three-dimensional mapping technologies are helping USF Libraries create a schematic not just for the purposes of stabilizing the buildings but also to help convey a story about the historic structures to educate the public.

“With this information, a person can tell a better story about a historical structure,'' Collins says. "Those with virtual reality equipment can explore these historic places, too.”
Among the other historic places in Tampa that USF DHHC is archiving are the Tampa Theatre and Columbia Restaurant, two landmarks with intricate historical details that could prove irreplaceable if damaged or destroyed.

“We’ve got digital images of the Columbia Restaurant down to the mosaic tiles on the outside of the building. The owners of the Columbia Restaurant are very history-minded,” Collins says of fourth-generation Columbia Restaurant proprietor Richard Gonzmart and his family.
“Another of the many other projects we are working on is the Jackson Rooming House,” Collins adds. Located in downtown Tampa, the Jackson Rooming House once served as the only place African-American performers and Civil Rights leaders traveling to Tampa could stay in the once-segregated city.

The Jackson Rooming House just east of downtown Tampa as seen in September 2019 before preservation efforts began in earnest in recent months. This landmark was built in 1901 and has been vacant since 1989.

The Jackson Rooming House was built by Moses and Sarah Jackson in 1901 and hosted many famous guests, including James Brown, Cab Calloway, and Ray Charles. The building closed for business in 1989 and has stood vacant and in a state of disrepair for decades. Added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 2007, the Jackson Rooming House and its future hangs in the balance as the hands of time and bouts of bad weather threaten to destroy the dilapidated structure, which is also believed to be the last freestanding house in downtown Tampa.
Efforts to restore the Jackson Rooming House are now backed by solid money, but it’s still a race against time to save the structure from collapse. The USF digital archivists stand among the first responders to digitally record every facet of the building with the hopes of giving a roadmap for its recovery to those enlisted to restore it. 

“We are creating an archive for the future,” remarks Collins, who describes herself as a steward for Florida’s historical buildings. “We are using a variety of resources, including images from the Hillsborough County Public Library and the USF Library. We are creating a bridge to the past through the lens of the present.” 

Kress offers a good deal to a developer
Before the days of Walmart, K-Mart, and Zayre, there was S.H. Kress & Company, a five-and-dime retail department store chain that was founded in 1896 and opened its store in Tampa on Franklin Street in 1900. As the 20th Century moved along, Kress stores became architecturally iconic for their ornate facades. The original Kress store on Franklin Street was demolished to make way for a much larger, more decorative building in 1929. That store, representing one of the last-remaining major art-deco buildings in Tampa, stands on Franklin Street today -- some 40 years after that Kress location and many others around the country shuttered their doors in 1981. 

The Kress building, just behind the former Woolworth building, share a downtown Tampa block with the former J.J. Newberry building (largely obscured here) and represent Tampa’s Art-Deco movement.
The Kress building, added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, escaped demolition during the widescale redevelopment of downtown Tampa in the 1980s and 1990s. But, unlike spared historic structures that were eventually refurbished as loft apartments and office space, the Kress Building still awaits its long-deserved makeover. The Kress Building is sandwiched between two other historic structures once occupied by rival five-and-dimes J.J. Newberry to the north and Woolworth to the south.

Land Advisory Group Director Jeannette Jason says the Kress building has long been eyed for adaptive reuse and, in combination with adjoining construction on the surrounding land, has been approved for development as a residential high-rise complex of up to 401 units. However, Jason, who formerly owned the building, says the Wilson Company, which bought the Kress building in 2017, is also considering adaptive reuse of the J.J. Newberry and Woolworth structures. 

“The historic Kress building is one of the most unique buildings in Tampa,” Jason remarks. But she says the Kress building, like all historic structures, offers developers its own set of challenges. “An historic building located in the middle of the block makes providing an efficient parking garage costly and difficult.” 

History all over the place
Del Acosta has spent more than 35 years as an architectural historian, including 13 years working in a similar role with the City of Tampa. He says there are many buildings in the Tampa area that qualify as historic preservation projects. 

“One building that will probably always be a work in progress is Plant Hall,” quips Acosta, referencing the grand, minaret-topped structure that was built in 1891 on the grounds of the current University of Tampa. Originally serving as the Tampa Bay Hotel, Plant Hall has been undergoing renovations for many years. The list of long-anticipated projects yet to be completed at the grand building will see ongoing work there for many years to come. “It’s one of the 10 best examples of a Victorian building in the United States,” he asserts.
On the other end of the spectrum are the humble bungalows scattered throughout Ybor City and West Tampa. “The casitas and bungalows were aspirational to the many people who didn’t live in houses in the way we know them today,” he remarks. “They represent the early ascension toward the middle class. They were important to the development of Tampa and the cultural contributions to the community,” says Acosta.

These two bungalows in Ybor City are typical of the casitas that cigar factory workers would have lived in around the turn of the 20th century. Now considered historic gems, they help tell the tale of Tampa’s diverse culture and rich history.

Across the bridges over in Pinellas County, Preservation Architect Vivian Salaga, AIA, and her team at Atelier Architecture Engineering Construction, Inc., just completed the restoration of the Tarpon Springs Cultural Center. “It was formerly the City Hall and City Fire Station and is now being used as a local community theatre and gallery,” she says. “All preservation work reveals stories of the people who inhabited the buildings over time. It is the chronology of the history of a community, not just of the building itself.” 

Salaga’s work has taken her on both sides of the Bay.
“A significant project we completed in Tampa Heights -- the Sanctuary Lofts -- formerly the First United Methodist Church of Tampa, at the corner of Central and Ross Avenues, was the congregational home to many of Tampa’s early leaders,'' Salaga says. "As we were working on this building, many of these founders’ descendants, as well as descendants of other congregation members, came to us with memorabilia, photographs, letters, and various documents chronicling the lives of these families -- births, baptisms, confirmations, weddings, anniversaries, birthdays -- and the evolution of the surrounding neighborhood over time. And then it became a ‘living’ project, with greater depth of spirit.”

Historic preservation projects often inspire greater economic redevelopment in the surrounding community.
“These projects are a stimulus to the well-being of downtown main streets, and every one of them has brought back life and vitality to the business districts where they are located,’’ Salaga says. “They maintain the scale and character of their neighborhoods and are the epitome of the green building movement.”

While every project is unique, she says, there’s a common thread with restoration and adaptive reuse projects.
“Most preservation work involves a change of use from the original purpose of the building; the challenge therein is maintaining the integrity of the historic building, while re-purposing it for contemporary use. It’s our job, as preservation architects, to not demo and destroy, but to honor and preserve.”
Many laypersons may look at an aging, dilapidated building with peeling paint, rotted wood, and cracked plaster as too expensive to revitalize or, perhaps, even worse – a lost cause. 

“And most people then see demo and destroy/replace as the solution. But these are cosmetic issues, easily repaired, and ones which would automatically be addressed in restoration or remodeling project.”

She adds, “one must look at the bones of the building to determine the success of a restoration project.” 

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Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.