Looking for signs of Tampa's growing urban scene? You gotta see 500 E Kennedy Blvd

In the heart of downtown Tampa, a link to the city’s past is also part of what many hope will be the future of an increasingly dynamic urban scene.

It’s a building located at 500 E. Kennedy Blvd., a building with an historic pedigree but which is changing with the times and with the city.

The four-story building, known as the Scottish Rite building, was built in 1921 for the Masonic group and designed by Tampa’s foremost historical architect, M. Leo Elliott.

It’s been heavily renovated, including an elegant art deco lobby, and now houses attorney’s offices, a high-tech marketing firm, a new business incubator catering to young entrepreneurs, and a café called The Attic that its owner, lawyer Rich McIntyre, hopes will become a hangout for the young professionals increasingly populating downtown.

McIntyre bought the building a year ago, when it was almost entirely vacant. He likes the contrast of joining old and new that’s characteristic of downtown, and hopes the building will become a center of activity for the new breed of downtown denizens.

His firm’s office takes up most of one floor. McIntyre says he bought the building mainly because he couldn’t predict how quickly his firm might grow, and didn’t want to sign a lease for office space.

On the top-floor, The Attic cafe and bar is currently a breakfast, lunch and happy hour spot that usually closes at 8 p.m. But McIntyre is starting to book live music for Friday nights, and is considering open-mike nights that would feature veteran Tampa civic and political leaders such as Dick Greco entertaining crowds with stories of old Tampa.

At night, its small outdoor balcony features an unimpeded view of the heart of downtown, with Old City Hall lit up in the foreground.

Tampa Bay WaVE, which occupies most of one floor of the four-story building, moved in just after McIntyre bought it. WaVE is a nonprofit “helping entrepreneurs turn ideas into growing tech businesses in Tampa Bay.”

The group, founded in 2008, says it has supported more than over 150 tech startups and more than 250 entrepreneurs, “and other crazy talented techies that call Tampa Bay home.”

It’s in a space formerly occupied by an architectural firm, which designed the space with an ultra-modern, industrial look, with curved walls, round rooms and a bare floor.

Preserving the past to build the future

Alfred Goldberg of web design and marketing firm Absolute Mobile Solutions, the first tenant McIntyre recruited, likes giving tours of the building. He points out the Masonic and Scottish Rite symbols worked into its design by Elliott, who was himself a Mason -- a lantern over the door, to be lit during gatherings; double-headed eagles over the windows perched atop the corners of the facades.

Sunshine Bank and the office of another lawyer, Bruce Goldstein, are on the first floor.

Four massive, fluted wooden columns located in Goldstein’s office suite are original to the building, and convey the sense of ancient ceremony that imbues the Masonic order.

But the architectural detail Goldstein talks about most are mahogany wooden panels in the conference room of his suite, which have their own place in Tampa history.

The panels came from what was once the lavish Sea Wolf restaurant, operated by the legendary Gene Holloway, a frozen food millionaire who faked his own death in a staged boating accident, then was convicted of insurance fraud in 1982.

As much as any other single designer, Elliott helped shape the architectural look of Tampa, creating such buildings as the Old City Hall, the Centro Asturiano, the Cuban Club, the rococo Palace of Florence on Davis Islands, and many South Tampa, Bayshore and Davis Islands homes.

Much of his best work has survived, though some has been lost -- the Tampa Gas Co. building, for example, torn down by the Lykes Co. amid controversy in 1993, where Lykes Gaslight Park is now.

The Scottish Rite building isn’t the best example of Elliott’s work. Preservationist architect Grant Rimbey says his favorites are the Cuban Club, the Italian Club and Old City Hall.
But its imposing façade and decorative touches symbolize the social importance of fraternal organizations such as the Masons in the era when it was built.

The Masonic Lodge next door was built in 1928.

“Masonic lodges and fraternal organizations were very important not just in Tampa but around the country, going back to the 18th Century and well into the 20th Century,” says Tampa historian Rodney Kite-Powell. 
Historic photos of business and civic leaders often show them wearing Masonic pins, he says.

Central to life in the city

“The location of these buildings is no accident -- right in the center of town, close to City Hall, the county courthouse and the big churches -- right in the center of activity,” he says.

Elliott specialized in Mediterranean Revival style, but, says Rimbey, who is a graduate of the University of Florida who holds a master's degree in architecture from the University of Texas-Austin. “He was a true architect -- he could do excellent work in many styles.”

One of his best-known residential designs, the Henry Leiman House in Hyde Park, is in the Prairie Style of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Don Prosser of the Tampa Scottish Rite says the group bought the lot for the building in 1918 for $16,500, and occupied the building until they sold it in 1973.

Lawyer Bruce Goldstein, the building’s longest-running tenant who earned his law degree from the University of Miami law school, says it was bought by John Birdsall, founder of a South Florida shipping firm, who  gutted and renovated it in the 1980s, adding a new roof on the tops of the facades to create the fourth floor.

Birdsall later sold it to a partnership of lawyers, and various law firms were the main tenants until McIntyre, who earned his law degree from the University of Pittsburgh law school, bought it.
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Read more articles by William March.