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St. Pete panel approves partial historic designation for the Doc Webb house

In a compromise intended to preserve the former home of James E. “Doc’’ Webb, the carport on the left would be removed. [SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN | Times]
In a compromise intended to preserve the former home of James E. “Doc’’ Webb, the carport on the left would be removed. [SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN | Times]
Published Apr. 10, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — The estate of James E. "Doc" Webb, founder of the "World's Most Unusual Drug Store,'' is closer to being designated a local historic landmark — sort of.

In a compromise spawned by a quandary, the city's Community Planning & Preservation Commission voted Tuesday to designate as historic only Webb's former home and one of the four lots on which it now sits in Allendale Terrace. The designation would not apply to the other three lots, paving the way for what neighbors fear could be new "cookie cutter'' houses.

"This is an opportunity to show everyone we are working together and protecting everyone's rights,'' said lawyer Jacob Cremer, who represents the current owners of the property, Karen and Merrill King. They have a contract to sell it to a developer.

But numerous speakers said preserving the entire estate is essential to honoring Webb's legacy and maintaining the character of Allendale Terrace, known for its older homes on large, oak-shaded lots.

"Carving it up will diminish the grandeur of Doc Webb's estate and not have the positive impact that historic designation attempts to do,'' Mary Dowd told the commissioners.

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

Ray Arsenault, a historian who lives near the Webb house, said the property deserves protection because Webb did so much to promote the city.

"He was Mr. St. Petersburg,'' Arsenault said. "People with no idea of St. Petersburg would see those signs 200 miles away.''

Webb, whose enormous store near downtown St. Petersburg was known for its mermaids, dancing chickens and cut-rate dinners, lived in the 1920 neoclassical style house from 1935 to 1974. The Kings owned it for more than 30 years but contracted to sell to David Weekley Homes for $960,000 last fall after getting a letter from city officials saying the property had four buildable lots.

Controversy exploded when neighbor Anne Dowling, on behalf of the newly formed Allendale Terrace Neighbors United, applied for historic designation for the estate without consulting the Kings. Efforts to reach a compromise seemingly collapsed when the Kings sued Dowling, the city and the organization Preserve the 'Burg, claiming the application jeopardized their contract with Weekley and that Dowling was trying to force them to sell to her at below market price.

READ MORE: Owners of St. Pete's Doc Webb House allege a conspiracy to block the sale to developers

At Tuesday's hearing, Dowling's son showed a 10-minute video highlighting Webb's legacy and making a case for preserving the entire property. Merrill King, though, said that allowing third parties like Dowling to apply for historic designation "can turn someone's life upside down.''

The application "created a severe financial hardship for us,'' he said, noting that he and his wife had contracted to buy another home where they planned to retire.

City staffers came up with a plan, endorsed by the Kings, to designate as historic one lot and the house, minus a carport that now extends partially over a lot line. Removing the carport would be "like cutting off an arm,'' Emily Elywn of Preserve the "Burg told commissioners. Commissioners went along with the compromise, though, partly because of the legal quandary created by the city telling the Kings they had four lots that could be built on.

"This may be the best way to protect some portion (of the house) without going to an uncertain future in court,'' said Commissioner Jeffrey Wolf.

The application now heads to the St. Petesburg City Council. Commissioner Christopher Burke predicted that applications for historic designations will increase as the city continues to grow, pitting preservation against property rights.

"I can't imagine this issue is going away,'' he said.

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