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  1. Life & Culture

Why has there been a cat on this Tampa roof for 70 years?

Florida Wonders explores the question of a landmark ceramic feline.
A ceramic cat has survived on the roof of the Adams and Jennings funeral home in Tampa, for 70 years.  They knocked down the old building, and put the cat on the new structure.
A ceramic cat has survived on the roof of the Adams and Jennings funeral home in Tampa, for 70 years. They knocked down the old building, and put the cat on the new structure. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]
Published Dec. 1, 2020|Updated Apr. 30, 2021
Florida Wonders.
Florida Wonders. [ Lisa Merklin ]

Editor’s Note: Welcome back to Florida Wonders, a series where Tampa Bay Times journalists answer reader-submitted questions. After seeing a popular post about it on Facebook, Tampa’s Jessica Slack asked for the backstory on a cat on the roof of a building in Seminole Heights that locals have been gawking at for decades. We looked into where it came from, and why it’s still there.

The cat has been an object of fascination and joy for generations.

Jennifer Wrightsman, now 43, remembers seeing it en route to her grandma’s house on weekends in the early ‘80s. Her mom would point it out every time they passed, and now she does the same thing with her own boys, ages 3 and 7.

A ceramic cat is seen on the roof of the Adams and Jennings funeral home in Tampa.
A ceramic cat is seen on the roof of the Adams and Jennings funeral home in Tampa. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

The cat — white, ceramic, and vaguely terrified-looking — appears to claw its way toward the peak of the roof at Adams & Jennings Funeral Home at 6900 N Nebraska Ave. as it has, nearly uninterrupted, for seven decades.

For some, the cat is an anchor sunk in their memory. They see it now and find their way back 30 years or maybe 60, to a car ride where they’re staring out the window. For Dick Granade, it is riding to little league in the ’50s. For Steve Saunders, it’s the weekly drive to pick up his grandmother on the way to church in the mid ‘60s. For Kaye Osteen, it is being bussed from Temple Terrace to Hillsborough High School in 1972.

“We all would look every day,” Osteen said, “to make sure it was still there.”

The cat is still there.

It is also anchored, literally, to the roof of the funeral home. The paws have posts that go into the roof and are affixed with a bolt, plus there’s a safety leash of braided stainless cable looping around one ankle, explained a guy who re-attached the cat due to popular demand after it briefly disappeared in 2007.

There were once two cats on the roof, a black one and a white one. They were put there around 1948 by John Gennaro, who with his cat-loving wife ran an antique store and tea room in the building that in 1962 became the funeral home. That is according to Earl Polk, who worked at Adams & Jennings in the 1970s, starting as a teenager, and has returned there to work as an attendant since retiring from a career in the federal government.

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Ceramic cat on the roof of the Adams and Jennings funeral home.
Ceramic cat on the roof of the Adams and Jennings funeral home. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

“When Gennaro and his wife sold the building to Jennings, they took the black cat with them,” Polk said. “Apparently, they put it on the roof of their house in Bradenton.”

Later in life, the story goes, Gennaro could no longer live alone, and he and the black cat went to live with a relative in Maryland. There, the black cat froze on the roof and shattered.

But the white cat remained on the roof in Tampa, a neighborhood icon. It came down briefly in 1990 when a new roof was installed. Then in 2007, it was taken down as the original Adams & Jennings building was demolished.

At that point, Stacy Adams, who had followed her father Mike Adams into the funeral business, planned to retire the cat, placing it in a nice shadow box to display indoors. The cat’s fans would not allow that.

“Too many people came by asking about it,” Adams said.

“People were stopping by in the middle of funerals while I’m parking cars,” Polk said, “going, ‘hey man, where’s the cat?’,”

So Adams had the cat cleaned up and damage to its tail repaired by a friend who works with ceramics. It was mounted on the roof of the new Adams & Jennings building. The cat was then added to Adams & Jennings’ logo on its website and business cards, though it still has no name.

A few years ago, Adams & Jennings was purchased by the Stonemor corporation, which has left the cat in place.

“They were well aware of it,” Adams said.

Of course, none of that explains how a fragile porcelain cat survived being lashed by storms and the merciless Florida sun for the length of 13 presidential administrations. That part is kind of a miracle.

Funeral homes are not places normally associated with permanence, or the indestructibility of the physical form. They’re a reminder of the exact opposite. The cat is probably not immortal, but it is proof that some things last far longer than expected.

For now, the cat endures, and with it so does another Tampa tradition that Polk remembers from as far back as his first foray into the funeral business as a teen.

“We still get plenty of calls,” he said, “from people who drive by and want us to know theres a cat stuck on the roof.”

• • •

What questions do you have about the Tampa Bay area or Florida? Fill out the form below or email your inquiries to floridawonders@tampabay.com.

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