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In ruins, but it's loved

Published Dec. 2, 2006

With the claw of a big yellow CAT bulldozer poised to demolish a historic Ybor City building gutted by fire, a group of elected officials and historic preservationists scrambled Wednesday to save the structure.

Fire officials blamed arson for the blaze that swept through the 90-year-old building at Seventh Avenue and 22nd Street and shot embers onto the roof of the Columbia Restaurant across the street.

But the dispute that drained cell phone batteries by early afternoon was whether the two-story brick building could, or should, be salvaged.

Its fate had not been decided by Wednesday night.

Hours earlier, City Council member Linda Saul-Sena had historic preservation on her mind as she led a group of Berkeley Prep third-graders on a tour through Ybor. She spoke of the birth and death of the community, lamenting that its fabric was being lost in a patchwork of parking lots.

As the tour headed to the statue of Jose Marti, Saul-Sena said she hoped the former Masonic Lodge, which caught fire over the weekend, could be restored.

Joseph Kokolakis, father of two of the students, chimed in with bad news. The building was slated for demolition Wednesday.

"Linda," he said, "we've got to do something."

"Excuse us," they told the kids as they led them over to the gutted building, "but this is really important.''

They needed to buy time, and quick. Saul-Sena spotted fellow Council member Mary Alvarez outside the Columbia Restaurant. She filled her colleague in, and they both started dialing.

Ron DeSantis, an Ybor Realtor and resident, was making his own calls and closely watching the scene.

"We want to save this thing," said DeSantis, until recently the president of the Historic Ybor Civic Association. "The shell of the building is fine."

'It may fall down'

Some powerful people felt otherwise.

State transportation officials wanted the area cleared so they could safely reopen 22nd Street to motorists, who are being forced to steer around yellow police tape and road blocks.

Tuesday, City officials issued the building's owner, Andre P. Callen, an emergency order to demolish his place by midnight today. Two engineers deemed the building unsafe, said Tampa Code Enforcement Director Curtis Lane.

"We condemned the building like we do everything else that's in that condition," Lane said. "It's incumbent on us to look out for the health, safety and welfare of the citizens.

"It may fall down. I hope it doesn't and God forbid somebody's under it."

Tampa Fire Rescue Capt. Bill Wade told a gaggle of reporters that fire officials had released the building back to its owner after determining that arson had fueled the blaze. Wade did not reveal how the fire started. He said there were no suspects.

With investigators gone, Kokolakis made a pitch to buy the building from Callen. Kokolakis, who with attorney Dale Swope has restored other historic buildings in Ybor City, said his company has rebuilt from the inside while maintaining the facade.

Meantime, the building's three remaining outer walls would be supported so they wouldn't collapse. He didn't know who would pay, noting the city has funds for emergency repairs on historic buildings.

"With the right ideas you can pretty much restore anything," he said. "It might cost a little bit more, but it's worth it."

Saul-Sena and Alvarez stationed themselves in the skeleton shadow of the building, its entrails spilled out in a heap of black soot.

Good news came. The state Department of Transportation was willing to wait a few days for the city to consider its options.

"Beautiful," Saul-Sena said, hugging the messenger.

Then more bad news. The city had issued the demolition permit. Alvarez said they needed to get the order rescinded.

"Call the mayor," she said to Saul-Sena.

Hashing out options

An Amtrak train rumbled by. The gutted building did not shake.

Fran Williams, chairman of Kimmins Corp., hovered nearby with his demolition crew. Men in hard hats and jeans waited for orders. Williams smoked a cigar and huddled with Council members.

Santiago Corrado, the city's neighborhood services manager, showed up. He announced an impromptu meeting for all the players to discuss their options at the restaurant next door.

Several city officials, the two Council members, a Kimmins representative, Callen and his attorney sat around a long table in a small room off the main dining area to hash out safety versus history.

A Times reporter showed up and was asked to leave. He protested - the law allows the media to witness any meeting where two or more elected officials gather - but was told the meeting did not pertain to city business. Saul-Sena spent most of the meeting outside with the reporter, then returned for the last few minutes.

The meeting's end did not bring finality.

Ron Weaver, the building owner's attorney, said more consultants will visit the site today to determine if the facade can be stabilized. Crews set up concrete barricades around the building for added safety.

No one cares more about the building's future than Iten Ahmed.

She opened Le Chateau European Antique Imports on the building's first floor after immigrating from Egypt seven years ago. She sold rugs and chandeliers and oil paintings.

Wednesday, she stared sadly at the shop's charred remains.

"It's part of me," said Ahmed, 40. "This is the first home for me. Every day for seven years. Now, I wake up every day with nothing."

Her eyes filled with tears. She pointed down at the concrete sidewalk.

"I will sleep here," she said. "It's my place. It's my place."

Times staff writers Abbie VanSickle and Michael Mohammed and photographer Ken Helle contributed to this report.


Reward offer

Fire officials are offering a cash reward for information about the Ybor City fire. Call (877) 662-7766 or (813) 232-6805.

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