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Women left imprint on city's growth

She may have lived in a gilded cage, but she did more than decorate the parlor.

With a husband who owned his own company or worked in a profession, most upper middle-class, married white women didn't have to work. In truth, unless she was widowed or single, the working world didn't welcome her labor. Her work cast these women above the marketplace, pursuing high ideals as volunteer laborers for the greater good.

Yet in St. Petersburg, women at the turn of the century raised money and rallied help to build sidewalks, landscape parks, plant trees along city streets and install drinking fountains downtown. They also petitioned for prison reform, lobbied for wildlife preservation and pushed to keep St. Petersburg's downtown waterfront free from development.

In St. Petersburg's pioneer days, The Woman's Town Improvement Association was a force to be reckoned with. Founded in May 1901 after a park improvement campaign that dated to 1888, the women embraced a broad agenda of concerns _ from decrying public spitting to creating a fund to aid people in need of medicine, medical treatment and food.

"That really was women empowered as much as they were going to get in that era," said Howard Hansen, president of the non-profit St. Petersburg Preservation Inc. "They did a lot of valuable things."

Beyond their good deeds, the women of the Woman's Town Improvement Association also erected a building that still stands today.

The two-story brick Woman's Town Improvement Association Building, 336 First Ave. N, is best viewed from standing in First Avenue. From that vantage point, the three arched windows that dominate the second story show what is left of the original 1913 building designed by architect M.E. Benjamin.

Besides providing the Woman's Town Improvement Association with a base of operation, the building offered meeting space for other groups and free public toilets on the ground floor _ the first in the city.

While the WTIA engaged in civic-minded projects, white women of modest means usually were not welcome in its ranks and black women were excluded from membership altogether.

The Woman's Town Improvement Association disbanded in1934 after other non-profit groups inherited the initiatives started by WTIA members, such as beautification and public welfare.

"The mother group kind of withered when all these other organizations got bigger," said Hansen, who gives tours of downtown historic sites. "It gave birth to them and then was no longer needed."

Not much of the original building remains today. The ground floor has been fixed up with a modern glass facade. The first- and second-story porches and their decorative railings have been removed, as have the six double columns that reached from the first floor to the second story. The red brick exterior has been painted beige. The Gold Coffee Shop occupies the ground floor.

The upstairs has been converted into efficiency apartments, which are mostly unoccupied, said Anna Dabrowski. She and husband Tony bought the coffee shop in November. An architect recently toured the building, Dabrowski said, interested in restoring the structure.

"I haven't heard anything more about it," she said.

Information for this story came from the Florida Room at the St. Petersburg Public Library, from interviews, and from the book St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, 1888-1950, by Ray Arsenault.