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Could 'Doc' Webb's St. Pete house go the way of his mermaids, dancing chickens and World's Most Unusual Drug Store?

Webb’s City, billed as the World’s Most Unusual Drug Store, was started in St. Petersburg in the 1920s by James Earl “Doc’’ Webb. At its peak, it had nearly 70 departments and covered about 10 city blocks. It closed in 1979. [Undated photos courtesy of the St. Petersburg Museum of History]
Published Dec. 28, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Before there was Walmart, Target and Costco, before suburban malls siphoned off shoppers from America's downtowns, Webb's City was the place where you could buy almost anything.

"The World's Most Unusual Drug Store,'' as founder James "Doc'' Webb'' called it, sold not only cough syrup and pain pills but also steaks, door knobs, shoes, coats, palm trees and dry cleaning services. At its peak it had dozens of departments, took up 10 city blocks and entertained customers with mermaids, clowns and dancing chickens.

Webb's City closed in 1979, a victim of changing consumer habits. Now there are fears that one of the few reminders of Doc Webb himself — his stately home — could be doomed, too.

The two-story house, built nearly a century ago on a large lot in St. Petersburg's Allendale Terrace area, is under contract to David Weekley Homes. It could be replaced by up to four houses.

"I'm not against progress and density, but when you start to lose the things that make St. Petersburg special you can't get them back,'' said Anne Dowling, who lives nearby. "It's such an iconic house not only architecturally but also because of the man. So much of Doc Webb has been erased and he's such an important person in our community. The house is the only tangible place left of him.''

On behalf of Allendale Terrace Neighbors United, Dowling is asking the city to designate the house a local historic landmark. Public hearings will be held Jan. 8 and Feb. 21 on the designation, which if approved would not ban the home's demolition but could slow the relentless drive to replace the old with the new.

Developed by Cade Allen in the 1920s, the Allendale area is known for its brick streets, mature trees and grand homes. In the past few years, though, a classic Greek Revival house has given way to four new houses and builders are eying other old homes on spacious lots.

"These developers coming in are attracted to what's interesting and beautiful about the neighborhood, but they're hurting it when they put multiple very large houses on lots that once held one at a time,'' said Emily Elwyn, president of Preserve the 'Burg.

The current owners of the house, Karen and Merrill King, are unhappy about efforts to have it declared a historic landmark, said their attorney, Jacob Cremer.

"It came as a big surprise to them because it got filed without their consultation,'' he said. "We've asked the city as well as the applicant to have a meeting. We have some ideas we're going to talk about and our hope is that we can work out a win-win situation.''

What is still known as the Doc Webb house was built in 1925, a year before Webb opened a drug store at Ninth Street and Second Avenue S. From that modest start he grew a retail empire based on the philosophy "Stack it high and sell it cheap.''

To draw customers, Webb sold dollar bills for 89 cents and bought them back the next day for $1.35. He offered 3 cent breakfasts, brought in chickens that would "dance'' for a dime and, in a case that went to the Florida Supreme Court, was sued for selling Ipana toothpaste below the Bristol-Myers suggested retail price. (He won.)

Webb's City hired African-Americans at a time when other businesses would not, although they made up just a tiny fraction of the 1,700 employees and were restricted to less visible jobs like barber. And while many of the customers were African-American, they could not eat at the lunch counter or shop in certain clothing departments.

In 1960, the St. Petersburg chapter of the NAACP began picketing Webb's City and staging sit-ins. That prompted legal action by Webb, who complained that the protests were hurting his business. A year later, Webb's City removed its racial barriers, though it was again the scene of picketing in 1968 when the NAACP supported a garbage workers strike by calling for a boycott of downtown businesses.

Two days before Christmas that year, Webb's City ran a two-page ad in the St. Petersburg Times (now the Tampa Bay Times) proclaiming that its 67 departments offered "more of everything and for less money.'' Customers could buy a 10-foot Christmas tree for $4.99 in Webb's Plant City and Jungle Nursery; get a chuck wagon steak for 59 cents in the Old South Cafeteria; and have their garments cleaned and pressed at half price in Webb's dry cleaner.

That was Webb City's heyday.

Four years later, Tyrone Square Mall opened in west St. Petersburg. Webb's City began a rapid decline as customers left in droves for that and other new shopping centers. A federal loan and bankruptcy protection temporarily staved off collapse but in 1979 the World's Most Unusual Drug Store closed for good. Webb died in 1982.

Today, few remember the place that once drew national attention and is credited with such retail innovations as express checkout lanes. All the more reason, Dowling says, to save Webb's house.

" Doc Webb was a man with a lot of foresight,'' she said. "He helped build St. Petersburg and his house might be one of those linchpins in which way the city is going to go now.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.

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