The modest architecture of the municipal pool in St. Petersburg's Wildwood neighborhood belies a rich history. When built in 1954, it represented the belated, begrudging acquiesce of city leaders that African-Americans deserved access to a public pool. Government-forced segregation is illegal now, but that doesn't make it any less important to remember why the Jennie Hall Pool was built. It shouldn't have taken so long or been so controversial, but at least Mayor Bill Foster has agreed to get out of the way of the pool being designated a historic landmark.
Both in the 1950s and in 2010, it has taken government outsiders to prompt City Hall to move toward progress. In 1953, it took an elderly white woman who had moved to St. Petersburg from the Midwest to finally prompt City Hall to abide even by the "separate but equal" requirements of segregation. Jennie Hall, who made money in lumber, walked into a City Council meeting and wrote a $10,000 check on the spot and promised $15,000 more if the city would build the pool for blacks, ultimately shaming the city into ponying up $35,000 more.
Now it's historic preservationist Emily Kleine Elwyn petitioning City Hall to have the pool on 10th Avenue S designated a historic landmark. Elwyn filed the application on behalf of St. Petersburg Preservation, the Wildwood Neighborhood Association and the Council of Neighborhood Associations. The Wildwood group initiated the designation after Foster last year floated a cost-saving plan to close the pool along with three others in the city.
Last week, the city's Community Preservation Commission initially delayed consideration of the application for six months at Foster's request — a length of time not allowed under city ordinance. Now the application is scheduled for review next month and Foster has rescinded his opposition.
Foster had argued the designation would make it harder to close the pool if needed. That's not true. Closing the pool, even without an official historic designation, will likely be a hard-fought political battle regardless. Landmark designation would make it harder to demolish the facility under city ordinances, but it would not necessarily make it impossible.
The horrendous policy of segregation is history, but its vestiges remain throughout American society. Designating landmarks is a way to preserve for future generations a sense of how such history is part of our community and, ultimately, its progress. The past remains a valuable lesson for the future, even if it takes government outsiders to remind City Hall.