Next up for St. Pete's Woodson Museum? Big vision for what can be

Terri Lipsey Scott, Executive Director of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, shows off the current display of photojournalist Herb Snitzer’s stunning black-and-white portraits of famous African-American jazz greats like Miles Davis, Nina Simone, and Count Basie.  

Then she leads the way out the back door to the museum’s spectacular legacy garden, where meandering sidewalks, tall bamboo, and huge old live oak trees spread their limbs toward neighboring homes in Jordan Park, the city’s first public housing project, built in the early 1940s. 

Jordan Park has quite a history. It’s located just west of 22nd Street South, a corridor known as the “Deuces” that was the heart of a thriving African-American community when St. Petersburg was still segregated. Many prominent African-American businessmen, doctors, teachers, and civic leaders grew up in Jordan Park, including the actor Angela Bassett.

Jordan Park’s former leasing office and administration building, which doubled as a community resource center, hosting proms, political debates, and special events for the neighborhood, now houses the Woodson Museum. 

Named after Dr. Carter W. Woodson, a historical and civil rights activist best known as the founder of Black History Month, The Woodson officially opened its doors in 2006. The craftsman-style building has a big front porch with columns, a 4,000-square-foot auditorium with beautiful polished terrazzo floors circa 1950, and large windows on all sides. It’s attractive and charming, but not up to today’s standards for a top-rate museum -- which is exactly what Scott envisions for the future.

After retiring from a 27-year career with the city, Scott was named chair of the museum board in 2008. Always a community activist, she and fellow board members, including local historian and University of South Florida St. Petersburg professor Ray Arsenault, began a tireless campaign to champion the fledgling museum.

Creating a legacy

As a member of Leadership St. Petersburg, Scott encouraged the group to create the legacy garden, a project that would transform the museum’s barren backyard landscape -- once a sandlot used by Jordan Park youth for baseball games. Leadership St. Pete raised more than $40,000 in donations to purchase brick pavers, plants, sod, mulch, irrigation, and fencing to spruce up the almost one-acre of property. 

Over the years, the museum has operated on a minimal budget, with funding coming from the City of St. Petersburg, grants and donations. It hasn’t always been easy, says Scott. In addition to hosting monthly exhibits, she’s offered the museum space for local community groups.

Rehearsals for One City Chorus, a local community chorus, are held there. Weddings, memorials, special events, and concerts take place in the legacy garden. The Florida Orchestra performs Sunday afternoon Woodson Chamber Concerts once a month from January through April. And the museum hosts a monthly book club.  

In 2014, the St. Petersburg Housing Authority, which had continued to be the museum’s landlord, had considered selling the property to St. Petersburg College. After controversy erupted over the proposed sale, the city intervened and in 2017 purchased the property, leasing it to the museum for $1 annually. Scott was named the museum’s first paid executive director.  

Now she’s laying the groundwork for the property’s next transformation. 

Upping your game

Scott says she is committed to creating a museum that rivals other museums in town, including the Museum of Fine Arts, the James Museum, The Dali, and the soon-to-open Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement. But enlarging the Woodson Museum’s profile and taking on bigger displays to attract more frequent visitors is difficult.  

Terri Lipsey Scott“We were never meant to be a museum,” says Scott. “I’m doing the best I can with what we have, but our growth is limited because of our small size.”

There are also issues related to the security of the facility and the lack of climate control for humidity inside the building. “That prevents us from hosting traveling exhibits from much larger museums around the country, including the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C.,” says Scott. 

To begin the process of envisioning The Woodson’s future, earlier this year the city hired St. Petersburg-based Wannemacher Jensen Architects and Mario Gooden, principal of New York-based Huff & Gooden Architects.

Both firms come with big credentials. Huff & Gooden is the lead design firm for the $67 million renovations and expansion of the California African American Museum in Los Angeles. Wannemacher Jensen collaborated with Harvard Jolly Architecture and Yann Weymouth to create the new downtown St. Petersburg James Museum.

In June, the architectural team briefed St. Petersburg City Council on preliminary design plans, which include enlarging the museum as a two-story building with a rooftop garden terrace overlooking the legacy garden.

As part of the design process, the team also hosted a one-day symposium at the historic Manhattan Casino with a panel of local and national scholars, including Gooden; Dr. Michelle Joan Wilkinson, curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture; and Gwendolyn Reese, local historian, prominent speaker and president of St. Petersburg's African-American Heritage Trail. The discussion centered on the role of African-American history museums and soliciting community input about the Woodson’s future.

Jason Jensen, the lead architect on the project with Mario Gooden, says it’s important not to see The Woodson only for what it is today, but to hold a vision of what it can represent in the future.

“It’s a conversation about how the museum can have the greatest positive effect on the community from an urban, cultural, and historical perspective,'' says Jensen.

He also says it’s important to not only “tell the story of the African-American community’s history and its resilience but to explore art in all its mediums, including dance and music.”

Expanding arts focus 

Jensen sees an expanded arts focus having a positive impact on two nearby Pinellas County arts magnet schools -- the Center for the Arts & International Studies at Perkins Elementary School and the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School -- with students possibly being able to take classes or show their work at the museum.

There’s also the potential for economic development in the area, says Jensen. With The Woodson drawing more people to the 22nd Street South corridor, that in turn would create demand for new restaurants and small businesses.

The next step is for the team to present a more detailed architectural rendering and supporting documents to St. Petersburg City Council in early October. Plans call for doubling the size of the existing facility, adding galleries, a gift shop, and more event space. “It’s a beautiful design with lots of glass and two stories that wrap around the existing historic building,” says Scott.  

According to Scott, the estimated cost of the museum upgrade ranges from $10 million to $17 million and would be paid for with a combination of state funding, federal grants, private foundation grants, and a capital fundraising campaign. She hopes the project will be able to start next year.

“With St. Petersburg being considered the city of museums, we would like The Woodson to have the same degree of visibility and respect,” says Scott. “I’m of the belief that 'build it and they will come'. “

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Read more articles by Janan Talafer.

Janan Talafer enjoys writing for a diverse group of clients, including print and online publications, nonprofit organizations and public relations agencies. One of the highlights of her writing career was flying with the 91st Air Refueling Squadron out of MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa FL for a feature about this elite military team. A journalism graduate of Bowling Green State University (OH), Janan’s early career was in health care marketing and public relations for hospitals in Connecticut and Tampa Bay. She is an avid gardener, loves East Coast swing dance and enjoys touring around St. Petersburg on the back of her husband’s scooter.
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