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Taking a Tour of the Past to Preserve Our Future

It's been said that in Florida, any building that's more than 30 years old is well, old, and worthy of being torn down for something new and shiny. That mindset has changed somewhat in recent years, and we take a tour of one historic neighborhood that's coming back to life.

A handful of architects and preservationists took a break from the recent Florida Trust for Historic Preservation Conference to take a bus ride around Tampa Heights and Ybor City.

"The little grocery store that we passed  back there, they've got homemade pizza and little brewery beers and stuff. But it used to be the place where everybody bought crack. And it used to be there were people killed in the vacant lots right out there, because there's been a lot of infill with us moving the houses."

Elaine Illes recounts the building of Interstates 4 and 275 some 50 years ago. Getting that modern transportation system meant demolishing large swathes of historic homes, ripping the social fabric of some of the area's most historic neighborhoods.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF
The Cuesta Rey cigar factory seen from the inside of the architectural studio

"When the Interstate came through Ybor City in the early 1960s, it took the path of going through mostly the old downtown neighborhoods," Illes said. "And consequently, West Tampa, Tampa Heights, Ybor and Seminole Heights, the Interstate literally bisected the communities."

Illes is chairman of the Interstate Cultural Resource Committee. She says when I-4 was widened again several years ago, transportation officials tried to make amends. They took some of those old casitas, or shotgun houses - so named for their long, narrow shape - jacked them up and moved them into vacant lots nearby.

"We couldn't find a project that affected more historic properties anywhere in the country," she said. "Everybody was just documenting their structures and tearing them down. And we didn't feel that was appropriate mitigation. "

The bus pulls over at a two-story brown brick building two blocks north of I-4, in the historic V.M. Ybor neighborhood. There, just across the street from some renovated casitas and the massive Cuesta Rey cigar factory, is the new home for Design Styles Architecture. Back in the day, this building was a grocery store, with rooms rented out upstairs.

The old terrazzo floor is now covered with drafting tables, comfy chairs and a cadre of twenty- and thirty-somethings banging out new ideas. Jason Dickens, a principal in the company, says while that's a common scene a couple of miles away in downtown, it's not exactly commonplace in this part of town.

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF News

He had to replace every piece of wood in the old building. But Dickens says it was worth it, creating new space from an old space.

"When we bought the building, I stood at the front door and looked out here, and this building here is all boarded up. The house over here that's all nice, that was half burned down. This house was all boarded up, and this house was all boarded up. Thank God this cigar factory had windows. So yeah, it was a gamble. We came here and said, what are we doing?," said Dickens.

"But I tell you what - this neighborhood has been great. Knock on wood, we haven't had any issues. I live in the Carrollwood area, and know maybe a couple of neighbors on my street. But the people around here - they'll talk to you. It's very much a community. It's something that you don't get anywhere today, and it's kind of sad. But you get that here. It's been good - it's been really, really good."

Other places aren't so lucky. During the Florida Historic Trust conference, the top ten list of endangered buildings in the state was unveiled.  At the top of the list: the Belleview Biltmore Hotel.

The hotel was commissioned in 1897 by Henry Plant, who built the first railroad to this part of the state. It is said to be the largest occupied wood frame structure in the world. But that didn't stop Belleair City Commissioners from rezoning it last month, which could mean a date with the wrecking ball might not be far off.

Trust president Rick Gonzalez has met with the developer to try to head that off.

"At the current time, the plans are to demolish it and replace it with condominiums," he said during the conference. "Hopefully that will change, through this mediation process or this negotiation process, so we can save one of the most beautiful hotel structures in Florida - one of the last large wooden hotel structures in the state of Florida."

Credit Steve Newborn / WUSF
A neighborhood of renovated casitas fronts I-4

Help might be coming from Tallahassee. The budget awaiting the governor's signature allocates more than $10 million dollars in grants to restore historic buildings. That's twice as much as last year.

For Secretary of State Ken Dentzner, it's more personal than just numbers. He lived for five years at the historic Goodwood Plantation outside Tallahassee. He remembers those old buildings with detached kitchens - that had very little insulation.

"At that time, I was working in the Attorney General's office," Detzner said during a break in the conference.  "I had to go home at noon in the wintertime and turn the heat on so by the time I got home at 5 or 6 o'clock ,the place was warm. The place had 30-foot ceilings - incredible. And it really did shape my appreciation for historic buildings and really what they mean."

Detzner says he's on board with any efforts to use the grants to rehabilitate the fabric of many historic communities.

Steve Newborn is a WUSF reporter and producer at WUSF covering environmental issues and politics in the Tampa Bay area.
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