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Potential buyers tour historic Union Trust bank building in downtown St. Petersburg

ST. PETERSBURG

The historic bank building at 801 Central Ave. that survived the Great Depression and a looming wrecking ball may well survive the latest recession, too. Several parties have recently toured the 85-year-old Union Trust bank building.

The stone structure with the clock tower on the corner has been empty since NationsBank, now Bank of America, moved out in 1996. From 2005 to 2008 there were plans to renovate the building for the Arts Center and build a condo tower on the 2.5-acre site. Sluggish sales and financing killed the plan.

But new interest is starting to percolate, according to Paula Clair Smith, a broker with Commercial Asset Partners who has had the listing for about a year. She's had several people tour the building since April and said two parties are seriously considering it. One is contemplating an entertainment venue, and the other would buy it as an investment. Neither Smith nor the city's economic development director, Dave Goodwin, would elaborate on potential buyers and uses.

"In this market, that's great to even have people looking at it," Smith said. "Where is there another property like this? It's 2.5 acres in downtown. There's plenty of parking."

The 53,000-square-foot structure is listed for $3.5 million.

Built in 1926, the bank failed in 1930 but emerged the same year after a reorganization and billed itself as the only local bank to weather the Depression. It grew to be the largest state-chartered bank in Florida.

It was a major hub of local business activity. Almost every loan, land sale, home mortgage or savings account started at the stately Union Trust building. Customers wore suits or high heels and pearls to conduct business amid its cherry paneling and ornate decor. Tellers worked behind brass cages, while executives sat in offices above with small interior windows from which to monitor the comings and goings of people and money below in the crowded lobby.

There was an employee cafeteria, and there were dumbwaiters. A grand marble staircase led to the huge vault in the basement and almost 20 rooms for private deposits or withdrawals from safe deposit boxes. During the Cuban missile crisis, St. Petersburg residents joked about taking shelter in the Union Trust vault in case of an attack.

"It's a fantastic piece of real estate, and we're seeing more investment in the western side of downtown," Goodwin said, pointing to new condos and apartments at 1010 Central, Fusion 1560 and Urban Style Flats.

"We have a younger group (of residents). They're going to bring a whole new energy to that area and that building," he added. "It's a cool building. To renovate it is going to add to the character of the corridor."

A downside: asbestos. An upside: tax breaks as incentives for renovating a historic landmark.

NationsBank had planned to tear down the structure in 1997 to make way for more parking for its loan processing center across the street. Interior demolition had already begun, and the marble, brass and paneling were removed when preservationists raised concerns.

The City Council approved a historic designation that saved the building. About a decade later, when the property was part of the Arts Center project, the city's development services department approved a request to demolish part of the building that had been added in 1967.

Times files were used in this report. Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@sptimes.com.

Potential buyers tour historic Union Trust bank building in downtown St. Petersburg 08/09/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, August 9, 2011 1:08pm]

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