DOWNTOWN — When the town site for Tampa was laid out in 1847, Franklin Street was the main downtown artery lined by streetcars and retail stores, Florida's first radio station, the landmark Tampa Theatre and a place street preacher Billy Graham honed his worldwide crusading skills.
But despite the street's historic significance, much of downtown fell into disrepair until a series of renovations began last decade.
In 2006, Fly Bar & Restaurant, now among Tampa's hot spots, opened in a 1923 building that gave downtown a needed nightlife lift.
Across the street, 40 new condominiums sprang up as the Residences of Franklin Street. Nearby the Arlington Hotel, built in 1910, became offices and condominiums four years ago. Other renovations and rehabilitations followed on Franklin, slowly inching north from downtown toward the interstate.
Now, a couple of woodworkers and an architect want to encourage more redevelopment on the strip by nominating its northern portions for listing in the National Register of Historic Places. Their application will be reviewed by the Florida National Register Review Board in Tallahassee on Wednesday, when the proposal could be submitted to Washington, D.C., for historical designation.
"We think this is a fabulous thing to do," said Alison Swann-Ingram, 45, a co-owner of Franklin Street Fine Woodwork, which is behind the nomination. "From our perspective it helps anchor that area. I think these are really beautiful buildings that are iconic of that time."
The city also sees the nomination as an important step in preserving another portion of the street that serves as downtown's architectural timeline.
"You can't talk about Franklin Street without talking about significance to the development of the city," said Dennis Fernandez, Tampa Historic Preservation and Urban Design manager. "The national designations are definitely important."
Known as the Upper North Franklin Street Commercial District, the narrow area under consideration includes 20 buildings — 15 of which are considered historic — stretching from Kay Street north past Estelle Street, Henderson Avenue and Seventh Avenue to Oak Avenue. It includes the independent coffee shop Cafe Hey, the Old Tampa Carnegie Free Library, which is now a city office building, and the vacant Rialto theater, built in 1925.
The stretch was a historically industrial area filled with auto garages built between 1910 and 1945 that served as a transition between the frenetic downtown core and the residential Tampa Heights neighborhood to the north. These days, many of the district's buildings remain boarded up or walled off, hiding impressive facades such as the Rialto, which is still lined with ornate, Spanish tile. But Swann-Ingram said their beauty lies beneath.
"Lots of old buildings are kind of raggedy before you renovate them," she said. "But as you look at them you can see the passage of time and development of the city."
Swann-Ingram and her business partner, Carl Johnson, 52, have a vested interest in securing landmark status for the district having remodeled the Vintage Auto building at 1609 N Franklin St. For one, Johnson says he has a love for architecture. The 3,500-square-foot shop, built between 1910 and 1920, was a "dark cave" lacking windows, skylights, power, water and sturdy roof before it was turned into a bright storefront workshop in August where woodworkers create custom furniture.
Also, being on the national register allows historic property owners to recoup 20 percent of their renovation costs in federal income tax breaks.
The incentives are a tool to encourage redevelopment of historic buildings, said Stephanie Ferrell, an architect who put the historic nomination together for Swann-Ingram and Johnson.
Ferrell, whose office is at 1219 N Franklin St., has worked on several Franklin restoration efforts. She was behind the nomination application for another portion of the street that was listed on the national register in 2002 and includes Fly Bar.
Other Tampa neighborhoods already nationally recognized includes Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights, Ybor City, Hyde Park, Hampton Terrace, West Tampa and several properties on Davis Island, Fernandez said.
Some of those areas are also protected by the city, which requires committees to review proposed architectural changes to historical structures and aesthetics. The national registry doesn't afford that type of protection — just incentives. The Upper North Franklin Commercial District is not protected by the city.
Regardless, some property owners are wary of historical designations, fearing that they inevitably lead to building regulations.
"We'd rather not be restricted," said Thomas Rodgers, owner of Robertson Billiard Supplies, which has remained in his family four generations. "We don't care to investigate (the historical designation) one way or the other."
Besides his remodeled Franklin Street store, Rodgers owns a few other lots in the district just north of the interstate that were slated to become condominiums until the recession hit. He said he wants to keep all his options wide open in the future.