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Historic house may live

Published Sep. 16, 2005

You won't find any parks named after William Rawls. His name appears in no historical accounts of St. Petersburg's founding fathers.

Rawls was a carpenter in turn-of-the-century St. Petersburg, the sort of working-class resident so often overlooked in formal histories generations later. But Rawls could soon receive a measure of recognition by city leaders, some 70 years after he died.

The simple home Rawls built around 1898 near Round Lake was on the verge of being bulldozed to the ground a few months ago as just another vacant blight on the neighborhood. Now it stands to be designated a local historic landmark and preserved as the only remaining house of its kind in the city.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed so we have some way of protecting this really important early structure," said Wendi Williams, who oversees the city's historic preservation program.

This is not the sort of grand landmark typically associated with historic designations, such as the Victorian Williams or Snell houses relocated in recent years to the University of South Florida's St. Petersburg campus. Many passers-by probably would not look twice at 734 Grove St. N, a two-story wood-frame house that has sat empty for at least five years.

Indeed, when Round Lake resident Jack Runkle bought the dilapidated property for $4,000 in 1993, he planned to use it merely for storage.

But code enforcement investigators have put plenty of pressure on Runkle to improve the property, including more than $30,000 worth of liens. The property had deteriorated to the point that the Uptown neighborhood at one point included it on a top 10 list of neighborhood eyesores, and city officials targeted it for demolition if nothing happened soon.

Runkle has now applied to become the city's 49th local historic landmark, which not only would offer the Rawls house some protection but would give him a nice tax break on any improvements he would do. City Council members are scheduled to hold a hearing on that designation Oct. 17.

"When I found out about the age and the history of it, it just looked like the thing to do: save it," Runkle said. "If I could locate the financing to fix it myself, I would have."

Trouble is, Runkle also is talking to a potential buyer of the property. That person, he said, is less interested in the historic landmark because it would limit the sort of design changes that could be carried out.

The gable-roofed house is a so-called I-House, or typical farmhouse design, which originated in 16th century England and spread throughout pre-Civil War America.

It is the only known example left in St. Petersburg, which did not experience major growth until after 1910, when the bungalow became the most common choice of home for working-class residents.

"The majority of Florida's pioneer settlers came from Georgia and the Upland South, and this house is tangible evidence of the "cultural baggage' they brought with them," preservationist Howard Hansen noted in an extensive report on the house.

William L. Rawls was a transplanted Georgia native, Hansen found, who in 1910 was listed in U.S. Census material as a 35-year-old single white man who could read and write. By 1915 he had married Katie, who later worked as a grocery store clerk and maid at the Ponce de Leon Hotel downtown. They had two children, and Rawls family descendants lived in the house until 1989.

"It is particularly important to have this type of house in St. Petersburg, a city composed almost entirely of 20th century architecture," Hansen wrote.