Watch: Beams were installed to shore up the historic Jackson House. Now, they may hasten its fall.

The work of a digital analysis team shows that the wood stabilizers threaten to deform the walls of a building that once hosted visiting African-American celebrities.
Published April 24
Updated April 29

TAMPA — It’s been nearly three years since wooden stabilizers were installed to shore up the historic Jackson House, downtown Tampa's rooming house for visiting African-American celebrities during an era of segregation.

Without the temporary supports, the aging building might have toppled.

But now, the beams threaten to deform the walls of the two-story wooden building at 851 E Zack St., adding urgency to the need for the permanent solution that the nonprofit Jackson House Foundation has been pursuing for years. The group’s goal is raising enough money to convert the building into a museum of African-American history.

READ MORE: Laser scanning may help preserve historic Jackson House, digitally at least, before it collapses

"Time is of the essence," said Carolyn Collins, chairwoman of the foundation's board. "It absolutely is."

The deformities caused by the stabilizers are invisible to the naked eye.

They only became clear once a digital analysis team from the University of South Florida Libraries trained its 3D laser imaging devices on the inside and outside of the Jackson House. The team, working with the Tampa Bay History Center, divided the digital renderings into horizontal slices 25 centimeters high, enabling them to see that some walls zigzag.

"It is kind of like a CT scan," said Lori Collins, who is leading the effort for the team from the USF Libraries’ Digital Heritage and Humanities Center. "We can assess what is going on inside those slices and where the problems are."

Asked what the deformities mean, Collins — noting she’s no engineer — said, “It could be falling over."

READ MORE: Want to explore history up close? USF’s 3D scanning project makes it happen at History Center

USF recorded the images to create a virtual tour of the Jackson House as it looked in its heyday, the early to mid 20th Century. In 2020, the tour will open as an exhibit at the downtown Tampa Bay History Center.

Whether the images are put to use in restoration will be up to the Jackson House Foundation, Collins said.

Collins, the chairwoman, said that’s the plan.

The foundation is meeting this weekend to discuss launching a campaign to raise the $1.5 million needed for the work. One idea is seeking sponsorships for each of the 24 rooms once available for rent in the rooming house.

"We're looking into celebrities and their families with links to the house," she said. "The Nat King Cole room, for example."

Top black musicians of the day stayed at Jackson House because it was a short walk to the African American district of Central Avenue, known as the Harlem of the South before it was demolished. In addition to pianist and vocalist Cole, they included James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway.

The rooming house was built at the turn of the 20th century as a family home by Moses Jackson. With its location across the street from the Union Station train depot, Jackson came to recognize its potential as a rooming house.

"It started as a single-story house and then later a second story and a second addition were added," said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center.

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The new 3D scans pinpoint where the sections of the house were connected, important information for any restoration efforts, Kite-Powell said.

The Jackson House stopped taking boarders in 1989 and has since fallen into such disrepair that city code officials declared it unsafe and fenced it off.

That the temporary supports are distorting the walls of the house is to be expected, according to one of the men who worked on the stabilizing efforts. Their window of usefulness is closing.

"Shoring it up could not stop the issues," said Ronnie Williams, president of R.W. Tymewell Contracting, which did the work along with Bracken Engineering. “It could only prevent it from toppling over and caving in soon."

The new 3D scans back up what Williams saw as the most immediate concern — water damage from rain entering the structure through holes in the roof and missing windows.

Sealing the house against the elements has awaited restoration money, the foundation’s Collins said, because the group wants the roof and windows to match the original look.

For USF's Collins, the importance of creating a Jackson House tour hit home with the April 15 fire that threatened to destroy the Notre Dame de Paris Catholic cathedral, a UNESCO world heritage site.

"When I saw that, I thought, 'I hope someone scanned it,’" Collins said.

Someone had. The late-Andrew Tallon, an art history professor at Vassar College, created 3D images of Notre Dame in 2015 and his work might be used to rebuild what was lost.

Whether the foundation succeeds in restoring the Jackson House or not, it will live through the digital preservation — and maybe more.

Two walls near the staircase of the house bear the traces of where the Jackson family dragged their fingers through still-wet stucco.

"We can take our scans of the section and 3D print a replica so people can touch those hand prints," USF's Collins said.

"We have the oral history that goes with the Jackson House. Now, we can make sure the building itself never becomes just a memory."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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