ST. PETERSBURG — Down the hall, past desks that could be straight out of the 1970s TV series S.W.A.T. and an interview room where a defendant once escaped through the drop ceiling, descends a stairwell that leads to nowhere.

No one seems to know why it's here and the only way to reach it is through a toddler-sized hole in the wall. That puts the staircase high on the list of weird features in this time capsule of a building that, until this year, housed the St. Petersburg Police Department.

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The department’s 562 sworn and 220 civilian members have nearly completed their move to a new $78.3 million center across the street at 1301 First Ave. N. The new station’s clean lines, spacious conference rooms and elaborate break rooms present a stark contrast to the quirks and the lore of its venerable predecessor.

But, like all change, this one comes with a touch of wistfulness.

"That's a phenomenal building," said longtime Officer George Lofton, speaking of the new one. "But for an old guy like me, there's a little bit of nostalgia."

A stairwell that leads nowhere is one of the quirks of the old St. Petersburg Police Department Building. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
A stairwell that leads nowhere is one of the quirks of the old St. Petersburg Police Department Building. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

The old headquarters is technically two buildings. The west side was built in 1978 and will soon house St. Petersburg employees temporarily while City Hall is renovated. The east side was built almost three decades earlier in 1951 and will be closed for good.

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The east wing is reminiscent of an old-school cop flick, in part because of the asbestos, said Assistant Chief Mike Kovacsev. The insulation material becomes harmful when it’s disturbed, so any remodeling would require expensive remediation. It wasn’t worth the investment, so the building remained locked in time.

One example is the office of the economic crimes unit, where Lofton once worked as a detective. A series of metal desks in different shades of green and tan are outfitted with wooden shelves attached by the detectives and passed down through the years. The oldest desk dates to the 1960s, Kovacsev said. Tucked in the back corner is an interview room with a vestige of old-time policing: the two-way mirror. Video cameras have made them obsolete.

 Officer George Lofton walks through the economic crimes unit in the downstairs area of the old St. Petersburg Police Department building. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
Officer George Lofton walks through the economic crimes unit in the downstairs area of the old St. Petersburg Police Department building. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Across the hall is another interview room with a curious sign on the door: “This room is not secure. Do not leave suspects/prisoners unattended.” Look up, and it makes more sense.

Years ago, the drop ceiling with speckled tiles like you'd see in a classroom or office once served as an escape hatch for a teenage defendant, Lofton said. The teen didn't make it out of the building, but officers haven't left anyone alone in the room since then.

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Nearby is one of two cramped conference rooms shared by the entire agency. The floor-to-ceiling windows with their view of drooping oak tree branches are unlike any others in a building with rooms that are window free or where the openings are covered with metal grating à la the cheese grater building that once stood nearby.

This view was a favorite of retired Sgt. Katy Connor-Dubina. Downstairs, in the rooms used by units Connor-Dubina once supervised — crimes against children and domestic and personal violence — challenges abounded.

In a welcome with a dated look, tile spells out the abbreviation for the St. Petersburg Police Department near an entrance to the department's old building. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
In a welcome with a dated look, tile spells out the abbreviation for the St. Petersburg Police Department near an entrance to the department's old building. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

The teams shared bathrooms often crowded with detectives and supervisors but moreso when the Florida Department of Children and Families brought children to the station. Archaic plumbing meant the toilets made a booming sound when flushed, Connor-Dubina said.

"You knew these little kids were probably scared to death, like they were going to be sucked through the bowels of our agency," she said. "It was that bad."

Also unsettling was some of the history of the building.

Connor-Dubina sometimes thinks about two officers who died by suicide here, one near the parking lot in 1996 and one in the third-floor men's restroom in 1988. A third officer took his own life in the building in 1975.

The new building is "kind of a fresh start," she said.

The Communications Center was a modern workplace when the old St. Petersburg Police Department building wasn't so old, back in the mid-1980s. [Times (1986)]
The Communications Center was a modern workplace when the old St. Petersburg Police Department building wasn't so old, back in the mid-1980s. [Times (1986)]

Then there’s the strange stairwell, discovered by workers repairing a broken trash chute, recalled building maintenance supervisor Mike Gilday. Still scattered about are reminders of the building’s past life as a city jail, including a chip hanging from mangled telephone wires in one of Kovacsev’s former offices that reads “4th Floor Jail.”

Officers used to bring prisoners in through a sally port in the basement and down a ramp to the intake area. Now, the rooms along the ramp house property and evidence.

To meet accreditation standards, staff members had to get creative with their limited resources, said Colleen Dunphy, manager of the agency's records and evidentiary services division. That meant outfitting a mini fridge with a metal sheet and a dropbox or bolting a safe to the floor and adding a padlock to create a two-person entry system.

The area doesn’t have proper ventilation either, Dunphy said, so after a marijuana bust the dank scent of the plants would waft all the way up the fourth-floor communications center.

The location of evidence storage has been a challenge, too. Once, about a decade ago, a pipe in a hallway burst and water gushed onto the floor as the records staff frantically moved evidence from the bottom shelves. Moving evidence requires meticulous accounting under normal circumstances.

“We had to get creative to maintain best practices," Dunphy said.

During Hurricane Irma, which headed straight toward Tampa Bay in 2017 before shifting direction, Dunphy had visions of the basement flooding and the water rushing down the ramp into the evidence rooms. The department worked 12 to 14 hour days moving everything higher and blocking door openings with sandbags.

The people and the memories are making the move from old building to new. St. Petersburg police now call home a new complex at 1301 First Ave. N. [DIRK SHADD | Times]
The people and the memories are making the move from old building to new. St. Petersburg police now call home a new complex at 1301 First Ave. N. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Even though it isn’t hurricane-rated, the building also served as a shelter for the few-hundred employees who had to remain on duty during the storm. They piled into rooms on air mattresses, their cramped quarters growing more stifling when the power went out.

Dunphy said there is "not one thing" she'll miss about the old headquarters. The important stuff — the memories and the people — are all moving across the street.

Still, a note in red marker on a dry-erase board in the economic crimes office speaks for others among her colleagues: “I’m gonna miss this office.”

Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.