Thursday, May 24, 2018
News Roundup

Facing deadline, owner gives up on Tampa's historic Jackson house

TAMPA — Faced with a city deadline of Nov. 30, the owner of the historic Jackson Rooming House said Tuesday he is giving up the effort to save the broken-down, more than 100-year-old structure.

"I tried to do my best, but it just wasn't meant to be," owner Willie Robinson Jr. said. "All the things that they required me to do — I cannot meet them within the deadline."

Robinson, 65, said issues that include his health and his family's wishes factored into the decision. Adding urgency was a letter last week in which City Attorney Julia Mandell said the house is in "seriously unstable condition."

Mandell applauded efforts to save the house, a segregation-era stopover for figures from Nat "King" Cole to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. But she wrote she is concerned that the vacant, two-story house poses an "immediate hazard."

So Mandell has told city staff to start the process of getting a demolition order. The only way Robinson and his supporters could stop that would be, by Nov. 30, to:

• Fence the perimeter of the property, which is on Zack Street, just west of Nebraska Avenue. Supporters had planned to put up a fence early this week. But as of Tuesday, that had not happened.

• Secure liability insurance.

• Come up with a structural stabilization plan "appropriate for permitting."

• Execute an indemnification agreement holding the city harmless for "any injury to the public as a result of the current condition of the Jackson House."

Except for the deadline, the conditions are essentially the same as those Mayor Bob Buckhorn has previously outlined.

"It is a risk to passers-by," Buckhorn said. "We knew this day was coming, and I think Mr. Robinson knew this day was coming. The building is too far gone to be salvaged. We gave Mr. Robinson and we gave the committee as much time as we thought was feasible."

The 24-room structure is on the National Register of Historic Places and Florida's Black Heritage Trail, but it needs an estimated $1.5 million in repairs. From foundation to roof, there are major problems: from an unstable structure to wood rot, lead paint, asbestos, faulty plumbing and bad wiring.

In October, Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden, who led a community group that explored the possibility of a restoration, concluded that it would require virtually rebuilding the house.

After that, a new group headed in part by former City Council member Linda Saul-Sena stepped in. Bracken Engineering, which already had donated three years of work on the project, estimated that the structure itself could be stabilized for $50,000. After a meeting Friday, Saul-Sena remained hopeful about the prospects of being able to raise funds for the project, which might have entailed Robinson turning over the property to a nonprofit organization.

"I'm really disappointed," she said. "It's a loss. This building is the last authentic, remaining piece of Central Avenue, and now it will be gone."

Between the Civil War and the civil rights movement, Tampa's Central Avenue evolved into a vibrant black business district, with nightclubs that showcased the nation's best-known black singers. After rioting in 1967, the construction of the interstate and the effects of desegregation, Central Avenue went into decline and was razed in the 1970s. Now Encore Tampa, a massive $450 million urban redevelopment project, is rising with plans to honor the history of the area.

There are discussions that perhaps some of the Jackson House's gingerbread woodwork could be saved and put on display at the African-American history museum being planned at Encore.

"It's sad," Buckhorn said. "It's not fixable. It may be historic, but if it's damaged beyond repair, then now, at best, what we could hopefully do is salvage some of the material out of it to tell a little bit of the story."

Times staff writer Bill Varian contributed to this report.

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