Saturday, September 22, 2018
News Roundup

Repair deadline passes for Tampa's historic Jackson House

TAMPA — The March 1 deadline to stabilize the Jackson Rooming House has come and gone, but City Hall is in no rush to bulldoze the decomposing historic landmark.

The roof still sags. The floors still slant. And safety is still a city concern, though officials say they need to talk with owner Willie Robinson Jr. and his attorney before taking their next steps.

"Ultimately, it's Mr. Robinson's property," Mayor Bob Buckhorn said recently. "It's not the city's property. He's going to have to decide what he wants to happen.

"If he's gotten to the point where he recognizes that it's not salvageable, and that some of the folks that have been involved don't have the resources to get it done, ultimately, that's going to be his decision," the mayor added. "If his decision is to demolish it because it's unstable, and he wants to salvage parts of it to be incorporated into Perry Harvey Park or something like that, we would be more than happy to work with him."

For the moment, Robinson declines to discuss the house or its future. His attorney, Ricardo Gilmore of Tampa, says he and his client need to talk with City Hall before they comment. City Attorney Julia Mandell said a meeting is in the works.

Asked whether the city would bring in a contractor to demolish the house if the process dragged on without resolution, Buckhorn said, "we haven't gotten to that point yet."

"We're going to exhaust every option before we get to that point," he said. "That needs to be Willie's decision. It's not my decision. He's the property owner. He's the one that's responsible for it."

Late last year, Tampa officials were talking about issuing an order to demolish the two-story home on Zack Street.

City code authorizes the code enforcement director to issue a demolition order if a structure "poses a serious threat to the public health, safety, or welfare," or if the building is so damaged, deteriorated or defective that restoring it would cost more than 75 percent of its assessed value.

With the Jackson House, both criteria seem to apply. Officials say the structure is so rickety that a strong wind could blow it over. Meanwhile, repairs have been estimated at $1.5 million — more than seven times the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's assessment of $197,225.

In December, the city changed course, issuing an order to repair the house within 60 days. At the time, Gilmore was in discussions to sell the house to the charitable foundation of WHPT-FM 102.5 shock jock Bubba the Love Sponge Clem.

Clem, an outspoken critic of the mayor, said he wanted to buy and restore the house, largely to keep Buckhorn's hands off of it.

Then, in mid-January, Clem announced he was dropping his plans. Interference and unreasonable demands from City Hall undermined the purchase at the last moment, he said.

Still, Clem said at the time, his investors would give Robinson the negotiated purchase price of $100,000.

"My investors, as of the 11th hour last night, stepped up, and they're still — even though the house is going to be demo'ed — they're still going to give Willie Robinson $100,000 for this property and pay all demolition fees and all fines," Clem said on Jan. 16.

"We just won't have a restored Jackson House," he said. "We're going to have a pile of rubble that's going to end up being whatever Bob Buckhorn wants to turn it into. … But Mr. Robinson will be taken care of."

Instead, the offer to buy the house expired without Robinson accepting it.

"At the end of the day, we had the best of intentions to bring the facility back to a useful state, but it just didn't work out," said Tom Bean, Clem's agent.

"It was gracious of them to make the offer," Gilmore said, but it came at a time when there were active efforts to save the Jackson House.

For preservationists and people with roots in Tampa's black history, the Jackson House is a powerful symbol.

More than 100 years old, it started as a two-room house in a segregated neighborhood known as the Scrub and was added onto three times before World War II. Unlike nearby stores and restaurants, it survived the destruction of the Central Avenue business and nightclub district in the 1970s.

Later, it earned a place on National Register of Historic Places and Florida's Black Heritage Trail as a way station for entertainers that included Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Ray Charles. In the Jim Crow South, they could pack dance halls on the "Chitlin' Circuit,'' but they were banned from whites-only hotels.

In the 1930s, rooms at the Jackson House rented for 75 cents a night. Band leaders stayed on the first floor. Their entourages bunked upstairs.

One night, Cab Calloway dashed in the front door after a gig at the Apollo on Central Avenue, a crowd of autograph-seekers in hot pursuit. He didn't stay, instead popping out the back to catch his band's bus.

Later, Jackie Robinson and other baseball players were known to stay at the Jackson House, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stopped by for a sandwich on a trip to meet civil-rights workers in Tampa.

The house stopped taking guests in 1989.

By 2007, old age, a lack of maintenance and structural defects turned it into a lost cause, according to an analysis by Wilder Architecture in Ybor City.

At the time, a South Florida developer was looking at the area and wanted an opinion on whether and how the Jackson House might fit into plans for a larger project.

"As we looked at it, we determined it was just totally unsafe and not practical to restore," architect Larry Wilder said.

The deterioration had gone on too long. A consulting engineer found skewed window frames, a chimney pulling away from the wall, wood rot, insect damage and walls that had begun to settle. If anything, it made more sense to replicate the building completely.

Buckhorn, who has been criticized for not doing more to save the house, pointed to Wilder's report as evidence that it was beyond restoring years before he was elected.

At the same time, he repeated something he has said for six months or more: that the city would cooperate with anyone who steps forward with the resources and wherewithal for a serious attempt to save the house.

"I would be willing to work with anybody if they came with a plan," Buckhorn said. "We're in the same position that we've been in from day one."

Buckhorn also addressed persistent speculation — some of it fueled by the ongoing discussion of the prospects of building a new ballpark for the Tampa Bay Rays in downtown Tampa — that he wants the Jackson House demolished so the land it sits on can be redeveloped.

The house's site, mostly surrounded by parking lots for the George E. Edgecomb Courthouse, is a block and a half north of the Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, three blocks north of Kennedy Boulevard and nearly half a mile north of the site the mayor likes for a downtown stadium.

Not interested, Buckhorn said.

"I don't want it. I have no use for it."

Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, [email protected] or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.

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