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Peter O. Knight home in limbo as Tampa Historical Society regroups

TAMPA — Historic preservation faces a cloudy future in some corners of this city as membership in the Tampa Historical Society dwindles — from a peak of 300 people to just five today.

For more than four decades, the society spread the word about the people and events that shaped the city, offering lectures, a publication, historical markers and its signature project — the cottage built in Hyde Park in 1890 by city father and local airport namesake Peter O. Knight.

"We are in a rebuilding process," said Andrew Smith, president of the Tampa Historical Society for the past three years. "Is the organization still active? Yes. Has there been a lot of activity? No."

In its initial mission statement, the not-for-profit society pledged to serve as an umbrella organization for historic preservation in Tampa. But that role faded as plans emerged for the bright, new Tampa Bay History Center downtown, opened in 2009.

Seven years ago, the society narrowed its focus to middle- class life in Tampa from 1890–1920, using the Knight cottage to tell the story.

Still, the society faced a problem — the board of directors was getting older.

"I was burned out after 15 years on the board and then as president," said former president Maureen Patrick, 65. "Others felt the same. There wasn't a widespread sense of response among millennials to help."

Preserving the Knight cottage at 245 Hyde Park Ave. remains a priority for those working in local history, said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center. It was built in the Folk Victorian style, so named because regular folk could afford it.

The building is one of 48 historical landmarks in Tampa, according to the city website.

"That house is very important," Kite-Powell said. "It is not the oldest house. It is not the prettiest or largest house. But it is among the oldest in Tampa and belonged to a significant figure."

Money to help operate the one-story, 1,700-square-foot Knight cottage once came from the society's annual history journal, The Sunland Tribune, and from tenants who rented an apartment in the back.

Both are gone.

There are no immediate concerns about deterioration of the cottage, said Dennis Fernandez, the city's architectural review and historic preservation officer. He described it as in stable condition.

Still, society president Smith admits he is worried.

It is only a matter of time before the cottage needs a new roof. A major storm could break windows and cause flooding. And homeless people take up residence in the back yard.

During its heyday, the cottage was home to a prominent Florida political leader.

Peter O. 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.

The Tampa Historical Society was founded in 1971 by Tony Pizzo, whose contributions to historic preservation were recognized with a statue in Ybor City's Centennial Park.

In 1974, the society chose the Knight home as its headquarters with the promise it would raise money to preserve it.

Throughout the year the society would hold events, such as lectures, book signings, discussion panels, historic tours and period-themed tea parties. The Sunland Tribune shared local history stories had a dedicated readership base.

Annual dues were $35 but a few members donated much more, some as much as $1,000 a year, former president Patrick said.

The society sponsored historic markers, placing more than 100 throughout the city, Patrick said.

Smith, a 34-year-old Tampa native who describes himself as a longtime history buff, hoped to step in as society leader for the next generation.

He has suggested film festivals and history trivia nights to bring more young people into the group.

His efforts have hit some roadblocks — family members had health issues and he started a business, Salt Pines clothing store.

"A lot of time I'd normally have was sucked away," Smith said.

Paul Pizzo, a former society president and son of its founder, is disappointed but understands Smith's plight.

"It is an important society that serves the community but it is volunteer work," said Pizzo, 72. "Life happens and if you don't have a strong network of volunteers to help, it's tough."

Smith said he is confident he can dedicate more time to the society. If not, Patrick has offered to take over long enough to stabilize the society.

Another option is selling the Knight cottage to a museum or another history organization.

Under the bylaws, the society can take this step if it agrees to dissolve. The proceeds would be split up among other history groups in the area.

Pizzo said he hopes it doesn't come to this for the society his father founded. But he also understands that the Knight home must remain the top priority.

"The goal of the society is to preserve history. Others can preserve the stories. There is only one Peter O. Knight house."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3394. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

Peter O. Knight home in limbo as Tampa Historical Society regroups 06/17/16 [Last modified: Sunday, June 19, 2016 9:34pm]
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