ST. PETERSBURG — In the past few years, downtown St. Petersburg has gained more than 2,000 new rental units. But it was a 12-unit apartment building dating to Harry Truman's presidency that recently drew kudos from Mayor Rick Kriseman and other civic leaders.
Built in 1948, the Prince Gregor Apartments at 844 Fifth Ave. S have been restored to their Art Deco glory by a Canadian couple who became smitten with the place on visits to relatives in St. Petersburg.
"It's like a bunker, really solidly built with solid concrete walls," said Ali Sarrafian of Toronto. "We just fell in love with it, it's such a unique little building."
His wife, architect Afsaneh Asayesh, said the couple also felt that St. Petersburg itself had "so many things" to offer.
"Part of it is like a big city," she said, "and part is like a small city, all in one beautiful package."
Two years ago, the couple bought the two-story Prince Gregor for $650,000 and set about updating the interior while preserving the classic Art Deco look. Built in the blocky, geometric style of the Deco period — whose heyday ran from the 1920s to the start of World War II — it features such decorative embellishments as glass blocks and fluting on either side of the entrance.
Outside, the building is painted a rich turquoise with deep blue accents. Inside, the new owners have modernized kitchens and bathrooms while accentuating original architectural details that include rounded corners, plaster mouldings, stone window sills and mosaic tile floors.
Although some minor work remains, the apartments should be ready for occupancy by next month, according to broker associate Spencer Russell, whose company will manage the Prince Gregor. Prices tentatively range from $875 for a studio to $1,800 for a two-bedroom, two-bathroom unit.
"I really want to see what the community is willing to pay," Russell said. "Our goal with this project is to make it affordable for people who work in the hospitals, in the hospitality (industry) downtown. I don't think you should have to drive 45 minutes to get to work."
Though the Prince Gregor is within walking distance of Bayfront Medical Center, Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital and, with a longer hike, numerous restaurants, Spencer acknowledges that the location just south of Interstate 175 isn't for everyone.
"But you don't really hear (traffic noise) from inside the building so it didn't play a major role as far as a negative," he said. "I think downtown is such a neat place and there's a lot of vacant land around it, so we are hoping other developers and investors and entrepreneurs come in and make the area a little more populated."
Kriseman, who attended the ribbon cutting, praised the new owners for restoring the Prince Gregor when "you could have knocked it down" and built "a cookie-cutter project."
"This is a lot harder, a lot more work," he said. "When you invest in projects like this, you're not just investing money but your heart. You're investing in the community."
At a time when immigration is so much in the news, Asayesh, who like her husband is originally from Iran, noted that the Prince Gregor was built by a German immigrant.
"Somehow it is fitting," she said, "that a pair of immigrants came to buy it."
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate