TAMPA — The Tampa Rough Riders have come to the rescue yet again.
The civic group named in honor of Theodore Roosevelt's Spanish-American War cavalry has made a habit of saving historic structures.
Its latest is the Hyde Park cottage built by local airport namesake Peter O. Knight.
Erected in 1890, the home is one of Tampa's 48 historic landmarks but has fallen into disrepair in recent years as the nonprofit Tampa Historical Society self-charged with financing its upkeep struggled to maintain membership.
"We'll continue to do what we can to save Tampa history," said Tampa Rough Riders founder Charlie Spicola. "We never back away."
Six weeks ago, Spicola and another dozen Tampa Rough Rider members patched the cottage roof and trimmed branches threatening to shatter windows during severe storms. Plants growing on the roof were removed.
Cash and in-kind services totaled $2,000, Spicola said.
This effort was inspired by a Tampa Bay Times report that preservationists were worried about the condition of the Knight home.
"This is and should be viewed as what it, in fact, is — a rescue mission," local historic preservationist Maureen Patrick said via email.
"The rare 1890 folk Victorian structure attached to one of Tampa's most famous early families was/is at the very edge of ruin."
The Rough Rider board is next expected to approve use of $1,800 in organization funds to fix the backyard's wooden fence, re-paint the original outhouse and perform minor repairs to a one-bedroom apartment connected to the cottage.
The apartment, Spicola said, was once rented by a permanent on-premises caretaker and he hopes it will do so again.
More needs to be done to the rest of the 1,700-square-foot cottage at 245 Hyde Park Ave.
The front wrought iron fence and gate need to be replaced.
The porch has wood rot.
The exterior requires a fresh coat of paint.
Those costs will fall on the Tampa Historical Society, now hoping for a resurgence of membership.
Founded in 1971, the society was Tampa's first dedicated to preserving city history.
For more than four decades, the society offered lectures, history tours and sold an annual publication. It erected an estimated 100 historic markers throughout the city. Its signature project was maintaining the Peter O. Knight house it has used as headquarters since 1974.
But in recent years, no events have been planned. Membership dwindled to a handful. The publication ceased.
The latter two, plus renting the apartment, paid for the cottage's upkeep.
A few weeks ago he convinced his cousin Angela Morgan to take over as president of the Tampa Historical Society. He brought friends into the fold to serve on the board and reached out to old members to rejoin and start paying dues again.
"First thing we want to do is build up membership and bring the house back to good shape," Morgan said. "That house was once one of the most beautiful in Tampa and will always be an important one to our history."
The home's first inhabitant, Peter Oliphant Knight, served as mayor of Fort Myers and in the state Legislature before moving to Tampa, where he worked as county solicitor and state attorney. He donated the land on Davis Islands where Peter O. Knight Airport was built.
"All around Tampa are sites and structures that are crumbling or have disappeared because their custodians were unable to safeguard them," said preservationist Patrick, a former president of the Tampa Historical Society who built the membership to its peak of 300 during her tenure.
"The Knight house was heading toward being one of that group."
The Tampa Rough Riders have come to the support of other historic structures over the years, both in and out of Tampa.
In 2013, they spent $15,000 to restore a gazebo in Tampa's Spanish-American War Memorial Park on W Prescott Street, just east of West Shore Boulevard. The park is dedicated to the troops, including the Rough Riders, who embarked from Port Tampa to fight in Cuba in 1898.
In 2000 the group donated toward the efforts to raise the sunken Confederate H.L. Hunley submarine from its watery grave off Charleston, S.C.
Saving the Knight house was personal for Spicola.
The founder of the Tampa Historical Society was the late Tony Pizzo, whose contributions to historic preservation through the civic group were recognized with a statue in Ybor City's Centennial Park.
Pizzo was Spicola's friend and encouraged him to form the Rough Riders and promote the cavalry's history.
"We owe Tony a great deal of debt for teaching us the importance of preserving the city's history," Spicola said. "I don't think we can ever fully repay him but we'll keep doing what we can."
Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.