The St. Petersburg City Council stood up to the strenuous objections of the owners of the Detroit Hotel property Thursday and unanimously awarded historic landmark status to the 122-year-old structure on Central Avenue. It was the right thing to do. The designation ensures that anyone who wants to tear down the building or modify the exterior will have to jump through a few extra hoops. The designation will not, however, have the draconian impacts on the property owners that they implied during an hours-long hearing.
The Detroit Hotel was built in 1888, a stone's throw from the city's first railway station, and it was literally the center of the community for many years. It offered spaces for parties and grand balls, and its 40 rooms housed visitors to the small city growing up around it. After a 1921 hurricane caused widespread destruction, the sturdy Detroit was the place where St. Petersburg's leaders gathered to figure out how to rebuild.
It is that direct link to the city's earliest beginnings, rather than the hotel's architecture, that city officials used to justify protections for the Detroit. The hotel unfortunately has undergone many changes that reduce its architectural value. The original wooden structure, built in the Victorian Queen Anne style, was three stories with front porches and a five-story corner tower. But the hotel was expanded several times in ways that were not true to the original architectural style. In 2002, the building was converted to condominiums.
It was not the condo owners, but the group St. Petersburg Preservation, that applied for the historic landmark designation. Representatives of the group and other local residents urged council members to approve the designation, telling stories about their own connections to the hotel and saying they feared it could one day be destroyed like so many other historic structures.
But the Detroit owners fought the designation and threatened legal action, emphasizing that the building's zoning would permit construction of a new building of more than 30 stories. At various times during the debate, the owners indicated the building is so deteriorated that it is virtually worthless, then they turned around and argued that the city was essentially taking their property and they deserved to be compensated for their losses. They implied that the designation will saddle them with a termite-eaten, problem-plagued building that cannot be sold or torn down, or that it will force them to do expensive renovations.
But the designation applies only to the building exterior, so owners can do whatever they want with interior spaces as long as the building is kept up to code. The designation does not force property owners to restore their properties. It merely requires that if they make changes to the exterior, they must first obtain certification that the improvements are in keeping with the building's historical character. Under certain appropriately limited circumstances, the owners even could obtain a permit to raze the building.
The historic landmark designation recognizes that some buildings are more than wood or stone; they hold a special place in the hearts of residents who love their community and want to preserve its past. Some of St. Petersburg's historic buildings have been spectacularly restored and put to good and profitable use — the Renaissance Vinoy Resort being a fine example. The owners of the Detroit should keep that in mind.