ST. PETERSBURG — With time fast running out, the fate of one of St. Petersburg's oldest, most historic homes appears to rest with a South Florida preservationist.
"It's really going to take a miracle to save that beautiful little house but I believe in miracles,'' said Kathleen Slesnick Kauffman, who until recently served as Miami-Dade County's historic preservation chief.
Kauffman said Monday that she hopes to relocate and renovate the Victorian-style house, which was built in 1905 by a Methodist minister and once might have been the home of local African-American leader Elder Jordan. But the new owner of the house — which offered it free to anyone willing to move it — is eager to get along with plans to put eight townhomes on the site at 758 3rd Ave S.
"They would like to start building as soon as permits are through, which may not be enough time," Kauffman said.
While in St. Petersburg in May for the annual conference of the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, Kauffman took a bike tour. Someone pointed out the house and said it was slated for demolition.
"I'm not even from St. Pete but I understand the importance of the history of this building," she said. "It would be very tragic for me to see the city lose such an important piece of its history and I believe it's one of the oldest residences still standing."
Kauffman said she is trying to determine if she could use a federal tax credit to save the house. That would enable her to recoup 25 percent of the restoration costs but only if house were used for commercial or other income-producing purposes. One solution, she said, would be to move the 2,600-square-foot house to a lot fairly close by — perhaps on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street — and renovate it for use as a "really charming" law or real estate office.
"It's going to have to be moved, which is not a cheap thing to do, and I'd have to find a suitable lot for it to go on and it's going to need a complete restoration," Kauffman said.
There is some evidence that Elder Jordan, who was born into slavery around 1848, either lived in the house or had a wood-working shop there. One of St. Petersburg's most influential early figures, he established bus service for African-Americans during the segregation era, fought for their own elementary school, donated land for what became the Jordan Park housing project and opened a dance hall later known as the Manhattan Casino.
After Tuxedo Townhomes LLC bought the property for $475,000 last year and offered the house for free, a Tampa man expressed an interest in moving it to nearby Roser Park but abandoned the idea.
Also interested was Tom Herzhauser, who owns the Tavern at Bayboro and knows the family that last lived in the house.
"I love the home and preservation was No. 1," he said. "I had people research locations to move it to but one of the boys (in the family) showed me what happened to it."
Herzhauser said he too dropped the idea of taking the house because the tin ceilings and other original features had been stripped out after the property was sold.
Kauffman, who recently started her own consulting firm, has extensive experience saving old structures. Among them: The original administrative building for South Florida's Richmond Naval Air Station that will become the new Miami Military Museum, and a Palm Beach County house that is now the headquarters of the Lake Park Historical Society.
As a city where older buildings are rapidly being replaced by new construction, St. Petersburg also needs to preserve what it can, Kauffman says.
"Historic buildings virtually and physically tell the stories of the history of a community," she said. "When you start wiping out all those resources, what's going to remain there to show people what life was like in the early 1900s in downtown St. Pete?"
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate