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After 40 years, a question: What would the city look like if St. Pete Preservation never existed?

A home on Lang's Bungalow Court in St. Petersburg, one of several historic districts and properties in the city that have benefited over the years from the backing of St. Petersburg Preservation. The nonprofit organization is celebrating 40 years, and is unveiling a new name -- Preserve the 'Burg. [Times files]
Published Jan. 31, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG — Over the years, they've picketed, packed City Hall chambers and even taken legal action in attempts to save some of St. Petersburg's oldest buildings.

At 40, St. Petersburg Preservation has grown into a venerable voice. The once-small group of diehard preservationists now boasts a membership of 1,000, drawn by walking tours, movies in the park, porch parties and the organization's support of homeowners determined to protect their historic neighborhoods from ill-suited development.

The group's victories are visible all over the city — amid the cranes and modern high-rises in downtown, south of Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, in the historic blocks east of 34th Street N, and in a quaint, tucked-away neighborhood associated with an early mayor. Then there are saved landmarks like the Vinoy, and the almost-lost Crislip Arcade on Central Avenue.

RELATED: Wrecking ball starts to take down the old Pheil Hotel in downtown St. Petersburg

But there have been losses as well. Like the Soreno Hotel, imploded to make room for Bay Plaza, the controversial and failed vision for a sprawling downtown shopping center and entertainment complex. More recently, the group lost the battle to save the old Pheil Hotel and Theater and Central National Bank on Central Avenue's 400 block.

This week, the organization is unveiling a new name — Preserve the 'Burg — to celebrate its 40th year.

"It reflects more of who we are," Emily Elwyn, the group's president, said. "To me, it is an active name and we are an incredibly active group. We do so much to preserve the 'burg. We do everything, from tours and programs, to working with the city and with developers."

Vice president Peter Belmont was there at the beginning, a member of the small group that started a grassroots effort late in 1977. The battle then was to save the Thompson-McKinnon Building at 340 Central Ave. It was not saved, Belmont said, but two of its columns are now part of the Veterans Memorial at Williams Park.

The retired lawyer is realistic about the challenges ahead.

"First of all, everyone can probably agree we see a city that is changing. I think, in large part, there would be a consensus that the change should include saving some of the past," he said.

The disagreement will come, he said, "about what is it we should be saving."

Ray Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, credits Belmont with a lot of the group's success.

"We've had an enormous amount of knowledge and skills in the details and tremendous support. And so many people have volunteered time and with our tours, it's been a multi-prong campaign to educate people about the importance of our architectural heritage," he said.

"We've been able to convince people that it is more than aesthetics. It bleeds into the whole atmosphere of the city. We want St. Petersburg to have a sense of place. If you're in St. Petersburg, you couldn't be anywhere else."

Over the years, the organization has had to compromise. In 2016, it agreed to drop a lawsuit to save the Pheil Hotel and Theater and Central National Bank — popularly known as the "cheese-grater" buildings.

The agreement came with a $100,000 donation from a real estate investment trust associated with the property, money that Elwyn said enabled the group to hire a staff member and fund and educate neighborhoods and individuals in pursuit of historical designation.

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"I kind of saw that as mitigation for the damage that was happening to St. Pete," Elwyn, a professional historic preservationist, said of the donation.

"That was a hard compromise for us. We really feel that could have been an anchor for a great development in that area. … We understand that we need to compromise in situations and we also hope that developers want to take what's special in St. Pete and build on that, as well."

The ICON Central apartments under construction in the 800 block of Central Avenue are an example of how that can be done, she said. The historic Union Trust bank building is being incorporated into the project.

In the past, key members of the group worked on targeted preservation efforts under the name Save our St. Petersburg, or S.O.S. Arsenault, who wrote the book, St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream , was one of six people, headed by well-known St. Petersburg architect Tim Clemmons, who led the effort.

"It was, 'What can we do to save the city?' and it turned into a substantial local movement," Arsenault said. "We joined hands around the Soreno. … We spent four years trying to stop Bay Plaza."

Preservationists were incensed about the loss of the Soreno, a 300-room Mediterranean revival-style hotel that opened on Jan. 1, 1924, and was imploded in 1992 to make way for Bay Plaza. The scene was immortalized in the closing credits of the film Lethal Weapon 3 .

Will Michaels, who now sits on the city's Community Planning and Preservation Commission, once was president of St. Petersburg Preservation. He counts saving the Detroit Hotel and getting it landmark status in 2010 as one of the group's top achievements.

"It certainly is one of the vital organizations in the city," said Michaels, placing the preservation group in the same category as the St. Petersburg Museum of History and the Waterfront Parks Foundation.

"They are helping to preserve the legacy and the character of the city and they've done an outstanding job. They have not just been focused on downtown. They have made serious efforts to include the whole city."

Going forward, said Michaels, author of The Making of St. Petersburg , the group's challenge is "to get to that sweet balance between new development and the protection and the maintenance of key historic buildings within the city."

>Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.>

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