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Buildings move closer to landmark status

People hoping for the preservation of two downtown Tampa buildings passed one hurdle Monday when a city review board recommended that the buildings be designated as local landmarks.

Both the First National Bank and Tampa Gas Co. buildings have local historical and architectural significance and should be preserved, the Architectural Review Commission said.

The recommendation goes next to the City Council, which will have its own public hearing on the matter.

But even if the City Council approves the landmark designation, that doesn't necessarily mean the buildings will be saved.

Landmark status simply means that property owners must get special permission to renovate or demolish a building, said Stephanie Ferrell, executive director of the Historic Tampa/Hillsborough County Preservation Board.

Ferrell said local preservationists still are working on a plan to buy or swap the buildings for some other property downtown.

"Buildings that are designated as landmarks and used are ultimately the buildings that are preserved," she said.

The Lykes family, which owns the buildings, has said it has no use for them. Both buildings have been vacant since early this year when the last tenant, Wolf Brothers clothing store, was turned down for a renewal of its lease.

Lykes representatives have not said officially what they plan to do with the property. David Mechanik, a lawyer for the Lykes family, said he didn't want to comment on the commission's vote Monday, but the family hopes for a different outcome from the City Council.

The buildings occupy a city block of prime downtown real estate bounded by Kennedy Boulevard and Tampa, Madison and Franklin streets.

On Monday and in a public hearing last month, Lykes family lawyers and consultants argued that the buildings did not deserve to be landmarks.

Members of the Architectural Review Commission disagreed.

"I thought that both the reports by the staff of the preservation board, and in fact the reports produced by the consultants for the owners, made a fairly strong case (that the buildings are significant) on a local level," commission member Steve Gluckman said.

Sol Fleischman Jr., the commission's chairman, said he especially was impressed with the information local preservationists gathered on one of the building's architects.

M. Leo Elliott designed the ornate gas company building, as well as Tampa's City Hall, the Cuban Club, the Italian Club and other historic Tampa buildings.

The Lykes consultants had argued basically that Elliott was not an architect of major significance. But they didn't talk to any local architects or residents who learned to appreciate his designs, Fleischman said.

"I think if they would have talked to some of the native Tampans who grew up in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, they would have reached a different conclusion on the significance of these buildings to the city's cultural, social and everyday life," he said.

Preservationists are asking only that the buildings be made local landmarks, Fleischman said.