ST. PETERSBURG — Its arches once beckoned visitors for religious services and lectures, welcoming thousands through a spacious lobby and into an auditorium that resonated with music from a prized Skinner pipe organ.
The former First Church of Christ, Scientist, a fixture at Fifth Avenue N and Third Street since 1926, now welcomes audiences for the performing arts as the Palladium Theater. Recently it was designated a local historic landmark.
"It is something those of us who love our city's historic character have been trying to accomplish for a decade," said Will Michaels, former president of St. Petersburg Preservation, which works to save important sites and structures in the city.
Even as the Palladium's landmark status is being celebrated, however, controversy envelops other historic properties. The Hotel Detroit Condominium Association has a pending lawsuit against the city for designating the hotel — described by St. Petersburg Preservation as "the first significant building constructed in the city" — a local landmark. The building at 215 Central Ave. was built in 1888 by St. Petersburg co-founders Peter Demens and John C. Williams.
The condo association has said that the landmark status of the former four-story hotel prevents its demolition and the erection of a much taller building in its place. The trial is scheduled for Nov. 30, but assistant city attorney Pam Cichon says the two sides are scheduled to meet on June 28 to attempt to resolve the matter.
There's also disagreement concerning the Blocker residence, a Queen Anne-style house built in 1905 by a man who would become one of the city's early mayors. Modern-day St. Petersburg residents probably remember it as the former Mansion by the Bay, popular for weddings and other gatherings.
Current owners Lee and Sue Allen want to build condos on the 145 Fourth Ave. NE site and neighbors in nearby Presbyterian Towers and Townview Condominiums had objected. The city's Development Review Commission recently approved a modified site plan that reduces the height and overall size of the proposed building, zoning official Philip Lazzara said. Neighbor and St. Petersburg Preservation president Peter Belmont was one of those who appealed the decision. Thursday, the City Council denied the appeal.
Preservationists say that if the Blocker home — which the city declined to designate a landmark — cannot remain at its present site, they want it relocated. In a 2010 letter to the city, the Allens wrote that architects said the building, altered through the years, was not worth saving. Moving and restoring it would be costly, they said.
The city's iconic Pier also engenders strong feelings. Belmont says St. Petersburg Preservation believes the current inverted pyramid, scheduled to be demolished next year and replaced with a new, $50 million structure, should be saved.
"It's on the edge of what is considered mid-century architecture. St. Petersburg Preservation does feel that it is significant and efforts should be made to preserve it,'' said Belmont, siding with the voteonthepier.com group that is waging an effort to do just that.
Meanwhile, the Palladium's move to landmark designation proceeded without a hitch. Though built in 1926, the church was not dedicated until late 1942. That, the St. Petersburg Times said at the time, was in keeping with the Christian Science custom of waiting to dedicate a church until after its debt was paid. While there was a time when worshipers had to arrive early to get a seat in the auditorium for more than 1,000, by 1998, Sunday attendance had plummeted to about 50. That year, the church was sold to an arts group and renamed the Palladium. St. Petersburg College bought it in 2007.
Kimberly Hinder, a historic preservationist for the city, said there are plans to pursue other local historic landmark designations this year. A public hearing will be held in July about a proposal to expand the historic designation boundaries in Maximo Park, which is already an archaeological site. The original designation for the park off 34th Street S was made in 1992, covering its southern portion, but recent surveys attach archaeological significance to "pretty much the entire park," Hinder said.
The change will not affect parkgoers, she said.
"People can picnic, they can sunbathe, use their boats, whatever activities they usually do out there,'' she said.
But, she added, "They should not be collecting shells or any other artifacts and there should be no digging.''
Also on the schedule for historic designation is the Huggins-Stengel Field, Hinder said. The field, formerly known as Crescent Lake Field, was the spring training site for the Yankees from 1925 to 1961, the Mets from 1961 to 1988 and later the Orioles and the Rays, she said.
Kai Warren, who's on the board of St. Petersburg Preservation, has another idea. "If they're going to talk about fields, there's the Oliver Field in Campbell Park, where the Negro Baseball League played,'' he said.
Preservationists have other places they'd like to see recognized.
"Fourth Avenue (north) is a real important corridor with the Blocker home," Warren said. "Some of the only Queen Anne-style homes are in the Fourth Avenue corridor. There are others around town. There are different churches that can be landmarked."
Added Belmont, "We'd like to see Williams Park and the band shell move forward."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.