Beach Drive developer buys historic downtown home to expand Birchwood hotel

Birchwood hotel's developer plans to restore Mansion by the Bay as a Birchwood annex.
Published July 16 2013
Updated July 18 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — A century-old home once marked for destruction as the site of a condo high-rise will see new life under the developer behind downtown's buzzy Birchwood hotel.

Chuck Prather bought the Mansion by the Bay late last month for $2 million, property records show, with plans to restore it as an annex half a block from his boutique Beach Drive hotel.

So what will Prather get for his money? About 18 parking spaces, an office and storage for everything his five-floor hotel, restaurant and rooftop lounge can't hold.

For Prather, it is an expensive vote of confidence in his 2-month-old hotel, the cash flow of which he said will fund the home's restoration.

But Prather said it's just the cost of doing business in downtown's blossoming but built-out nightlife district.

"(The high cost) was silly, but that's downtown St. Petersburg. It's doing so well that that's what we had to do," Prather said. "There's no more dirt down here."

The Queen Anne-style home at 145 Fourth Ave. NE was built at the turn of the 20th century for A.T. "Bert" Blocker, an early father of the "Sunshine City" and its mayor in 1910.

His Blocker Transfer Co. drove teams of horses to train stops to transport baggage, mail and building materials. It also hauled the city's first telephone poles; the company's phone number was 1.

Blocker's home served as a clubhouse, nursing home, dance school, wedding venue and Russian cafe before developer Lee Allen bought the land in 2010 for $525,000.

Allen planned to raze the home and build Silhouette, a 14-story high-rise of 16 luxury condos selling for $700,000 and up.

But real estate agents said the $2 million offer — more even than Prather spent to buy the foreclosed hotel that became the Birchwood — was too sweet to pass up.

Though crews next month will begin sweeping for termites, vermin and rotting wood, Prather said he plans to preserve the home's historic grandeur.

Said Prather: "We'll begin to put the old girl back in shape again."

Drew Harwell can be reached at (727) 893-8252 or [email protected]