For 55 cents a brick, Ybor City history on the cheap

The Past For Sale, the sign outside the vacant lot could have said this week, 55 Cents a Brick.

Lots of cities have old buildings that speak of their history, and the red brick school built just east of Ybor City nearly a century ago was one of them. But it was gone last year for no good reason except the right people weren't paying attention, or maybe because somebody smart was.

Like St. Petersburg's Coliseum or the Don CeSar on the beach, the old buildings of Ybor and West Tampa tell tales of the past. The cigar factories, churches, businesses and social clubs are row upon row of neat red or yellow brick, built tall and sturdy by immigrant hands, some of those buildings still bearing the old family names today.

In them, people made their lives and raised their families; they shopped for groceries and saw their doctors and attended funerals. They danced.

Too many of those old buildings were lost over the years to age and to "progress." The luckiest of them were bought up and preserved by people who saw all that was in them. Reborn, they are offices, businesses, nightclubs and trendy restaurants in ornate facades, tall windows and that good brick.

Built in 1913, Gary Elementary School wasn't the grandest of old buildings, but charming enough. Eventually it became an adult school, then closed in 2005.

It sat vacant and in disrepair, even if it was officially "historic."

John Simon of JVS Contracting bought the old building and property for $331,000. The new owner said he planned a sports facility, but things didn't get better for the old school.

Last year, its water-damaged roof and part of a wall collapsed. The ruins were declared dangerous and the building torn down.

"Demolition by neglect," outraged preservation types called it.

City officials came up with an ordinance to protect such landmarks and historic districts from similar fates. You would hope no property owner would see new rules and fines as the cost of doing business. You would hope.

This week came the news that JVS Contracting is selling off 1913 bricks at 55 cents each, apparently the going price of history.

Presumably those old bricks could be made into patios and walkways, maybe even outside those Disney­esque, pseudo-Mediterranean McMansions people build on postage-stamp lots that look as if they would crumple like cardboard in a strong wind. (Sorry, my old-building bias is showing.)

When a reporter called to ask about the big brick sale, the owner of the Gary school property said it wasn't a story.

Now if you have a thing for old buildings, you might think nothing would be more disheartening than the day the school stood half caved-in from years of neglect, with plenty of blame to pass around.

This week I stopped by and found a flat grassy lot behind a chain-link fence where the school once stood. At the back of the lot, red bricks were stacked neatly on pallets and wrapped in plastic, looking ready to go to their new homes.

At least they're still considered something of value, I guess, heavy and hard and worth using. In spite of myself, I wanted one, a wheelbarrow full even, to remember what was here and gone.

For 55 cents a brick, Ybor City history on the cheap 06/16/09 [Last modified: Thursday, June 18, 2009 6:09pm]

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