Friday, January 17, 2014

Preservation drama: Has the curtain finally fallen on Tampa's Jackson House?

Posted By on Fri, Jan 17, 2014 at 4:58 PM

Preservation requires guts and tenacity... it is not for the faint of heart. As the curtain lifts on the latest scene in the roller coaster saga of the Jackson House, we see a bright blue tarp on the roof of a decrepit building standing forlornly in a sea of asphalt parking lots.

Enter stage right Bob, Mayor of the City of Tampa, face red, finger pointing: "It’s a mess! We’ve given you time... years. It’s come to naught. Pay your code enforcement fines, stabilize the building in 60 days, or we’ll demolish it! We must protect the public!"

Turns on heel and leaves.

Willie Robinson, third-generation owner of the property, sits mutely, stage left, throughout the entire scene. His attorney, Ric Gilmore, dapper and silent, stands behind Willie, hand on his shoulder.

Center stage is a varied group of concerned citizens, members of the Athena Society, Chloe Coney (Congresswoman Kathy Castor’s district director), Matt Depin of Bracken Engineering, Jetie B. Wilde, Dan Coleman, yours truly, and Yvette Lewis from the NAACP. A collective and empathetic “No!” with varied voices.

“We must save the only remaining authentic part of Central Avenue, Tampa’s black Main Street demolished in the 1960s!”

“Let’s ask Tampa City Council for more time to rally support!”

“I’ve heard that Ella Fitzgerald stayed there and Cab Calloway. Martin Luther King, Jr. visited there during our Civil Rights struggle!”

Flash of projected newspaper headlines: “Jackson House Saved”

Willie stands and smiles.

Then the headline changes: “Jackson House Lost"

Willie sits down dejectedly.

The background music had swelled and now recedes. Lights go dark. Stage empties.

Suddenly, the lights come up, music crescendos: It’s Bubba the Love Sponge, striding boldly onto center stage with an oversized microphone in his hands. “We can’t lose this part of our community’s story! We need to step up and save this place!”

The sound of a dozen ringing telephones is heard. Minions run onto the stage with phones.

Bubba picks one up. ”You’ll donate plumbing, great!” Next one: “You’ll donate roofing, terrific!” Next phone: "You’ll donate cash! Wow."

Bubba turns to his assistant. “I’ve never had such a response to any issue in 25 years!”

Bubba’s assistant displays briefcase bursting with email offers to help.

One last phone rings: ”You’ll buy the Jackson House to save it?” Sound of heavenly trumpets, dissolving into jazz.

Suddenly, shouts of joy. Attorneys, white and black, scurry around with papers. Earnest lawyer agrees, “Yes, the city wants to save this building and will waive the previous code enforcement fines. Yes, you can have a reasonable amount of time to stabilize the structure.”

City staff member pulls out flashlight and shines it on the building as images of the interior are projected onto the house.

“Lotta work!”

Newspaper and TV reporters gather around Willie, who now stands proudly and beams.

Upbeat music swells and then stops abruptly. Bubba is on the phone with his lawyer, shouting. “What? We were supposed to close on Monday! What’s this about old code enforcement fines? Are you kidding me...45 days to stabilize? Six months to rehab? That’s impossible!" Slams down phone.

“Damn it! The city should be helping this project, not throwing up roadblocks!”

“That’s it!” A wrecking ball swings, music rises, stage goes dark.

I wish that I could claim the above scenario as a bad dream, but it is a dramatization of months of turmoil surrounding Jackson House, a building of such significance that it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The sale of the house was planned for Monday, but the City of Tampa did an about-face and upset the previously scheduled closing with a fresh list of demands and an onerous repair schedule tied to fines and the threat of immediate demolition if the milestones weren’t met.

What could have been a shared community victory in saving this historic rooming house dating from 1901 is now a loss. The City of Tampa could have been cooperative instead of hindering the process. Why did the City change its tune? Is there another act? Or has the curtain finally fallen for this iconic National Register building?

The Mayor's Office did not respond to a call for comment.

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