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City pondering future of house steeped in history

All agree that the meeting place of the city's Woman's Club should be saved. What is unclear is who should foot the bill, who should own it and where it should go.

Peggy Neeley can almost feel how hot and stuffy it must have been for the women wearing long dresses, hats and white gloves, meeting in the tiny clapboard house during the steamy Florida summers.

She can almost hear the rustle of their clothing as they read poetry, talked about current events or wrote petitions to government officials supporting women's suffrage and a school for black children in the city.

Members of the Woman's Club of Oldsmar snacked on finger sandwiches and tea in the shotgun-style building donated to the group in 1924 by the city's founder, Ransom E. Olds, said Neeley, the group's current president. The building was the only place in town for women to socialize.

"I can almost envision so much of that, that it gets so weird to me," Neeley said. "The women came here before they were allowed to vote, before they were allowed to do anything but stay home and cook, yet they came to the meetings to try to get something done for the city, for the state and for themselves."

Much has changed since those days.

Membership of the once-exclusive club has dwindled to a handful.

And time has taken a toll on the 1,000-square-foot building where the club has met for more than 75 years. The floor slopes, some of the wood is rotted, the white exterior paint is peeling and rats and roaches nibble on the club's records stored in plastic bags.

"It's not full of varmints, but it's not in a clean state either," Neeley said. "It needs work, but it's not a crumbled site."

Although the Woman's Club building is in disrepair and of limited use, the city has promised to preserve it and perhaps even move it. The land where the building sits is slated to be a parking lot for the city's new senior center. City Council members seem to agree that the city should spend money to save the building, which is built on concrete blocks on a dead-end street near City Hall.

"The simple fact of the matter is you don't bulldoze your heritage," Mayor Jeff Sandler told the city council recently. "You save it and you preserve it for your children and grandchildren."

Council members discussed ways to save the building; perhaps by giving it to the recently formed Oldsmar Cultural Arts Foundation, a private group, along with $60,000 for its repair and relocation.

The city got ownership of the building, the lot where it sits and the lot next to it in 1996 when the club deeded the lots and structure to the city in return for a promise that the city would preserve the building and let the members continue to meet in it.

"We made the promise to the women that we would preserve the building," council member Ed Manny said. "If you look at this thing economically, it doesn't make sense. But the history is worth saving."

David Wallace, president of the Oldsmar Cultural Arts Foundation, said the foundation would like to move the building to the Oldsmar Arts Centre on St. Petersburg Drive. The building would serve as the headquarters for the foundation, which was created to enhance the arts and as a place for the community to use and enjoy, Wallace said.

But Wallace wants the city to give the foundation $60,000 to cover costs. "The foundation is committed to giving that building a complete renovation and making it a part of the community," he said. "Right now, (the foundation) is kind of an entity without a home. The citizens of this community need to see that the foundation is moving forward and doing something, and the building could symbolize that."

Although council members seemed to agree on preserving the building, they weren't sold on giving the foundation keys to the building. "I'd rather spend $100,000 to restore it and keep ownership than spend $60,000 and give it up," Manny said.

Council member Jerry Provenzano suggested the city retain ownership. He questioned why the city should pay to restore the building while giving it away. He also suggested keeping the building at its current location because moving it would detract from its historical value.

Wallace said the building should be moved to the city's arts center, where it can be properly preserved. At its current location, it will be surrounded by an asphalt parking lot.

"It needs to be set with trees and proper landscaping so it can be preserved as the heritage of Oldsmar," Wallace said. "It needs a more serene setting than right in the middle of the senior center's parking lot. Keeping it there is a big mistake."

Council members postponed a decision so city staffers can ask the senior center architect if leaving the Woman's Club where it is will interfere with senior center plans.

In the middle of the discussion is Neeley, the Woman's Club president, who has pleaded for years for the city to save the decaying building.

When the club gave the city the building four years ago, it was with the understanding that the city would preserve it. Yet the same day the club signed over the deed to the city, Neeley said, the city tore down the building's kitchen and threw away the room's antique porcelain sink, coffee urn and table.

"Every little thing like that is something historical," she said. "Here we are trying to save the building, and the city just demolishes the kitchen. Four years later, the city hasn't done anything to preserve the building. It's been a headache for me just dealing with the city."

Although the building has a colorful past, it wasn't enough to get it on the National Register of Historic Places. It is believed that workers who were building houses for Ransom E. Olds slept at the house, which also was the city's first library, Neeley said.

Soon after Olds gave the building to the Woman's Club, he gave up his dream of turning the little town at the top of the bay into a metropolis. The clubhouse became a hub of social activity and, occasionally, a dance hall.

"It really hurts to see it deteriorate," Neeley said. "Why should the city spend money on a bunch of old ladies' house? It's for the whole city's benefit. Since there is not much left in this town that is of the original part, why not keep something?"