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  1. Real Estate

One-time mafia bar in Ybor City to be converted into commercial space

YBOR CITY — The local mafia turned the building at 2201 N. 15th St. into an illegal casino that flourished throughout the first half of the 20th century.

Then, a fire in 1988 reduced the 4,700-square-foot structure into an eyesore that's still missing a roof, windows and a large section of one wall.

Now, 103 years after it was built, the surviving brick shell adorned with rusted balconies may finally have its day as a community asset.

In December, the company GVZ Yellow headed by Phillip Gerardi of Gerardi Construction submitted the city of Tampa its plans to convert the building into a two-story, 8,393-square-foot commercial building with six occupants.

"The improvement of that building and the historic renovation undertaken will be a great benefit to that portion of the Ybor City historic district," said Dennis Fernandez, the city of Tampa's architectural review and historic preservation officer.

Fernandez noted that most of what remains from the original building will be incorporated into the new design.

The designs were approved back in 2006 when GVZ first sought to restore the building, Fernandez said. The holdup: The developer wants to cut the number of parking spots on the property from eight to three.

The question will be decided April 24 by the city's Barrio Latino Commission, charged with preserving the historic character of Ybor City.

Then, GVC can start seeking construction permits.

GVC's Gerardi did not return phone calls from the Tampa Bay Times.

But Ybor City leaders are celebrating the forthcoming restoration of a building best known as the mafia-owned Yellow House bar — once a center of illegal gambling and prostitution.

"I've heard so many times how badly something needs to be done about the Yellow House," said Ybor City Development Corp. manager Courtney Orr. "We are excited something is finally being done."

Erected in 1915, the building at 15th Street and Palm Avenue now stands between Hillsborough Community College and the Hacienda Villas senior citizen apartments.

Tampa news archives from the 1920s through the 1950s describe law enforcement raids to shut down the Yellow House's games of "bolita," an illegal lottery than ran rampant in Ybor City during the era.

Late Tampa historian Tony Pizzo once told the Tampa Tribune that patrons stood in long lines before bank teller-like windows to play the numbers there. And the late-Susan Rivera told how her late husband Johnny "Scarface" Rivera, a numbers runner, passed on stories about the Yellow House.

Among her favorites involved how a "keyhole man" would would sit outside the yellow-painted bar in the 1930s and stick a wooden match in the keyhole as a signal whenever law enforcement approached.

Then there were the assassins who fired at numbers runner Fernando Serrano in 1933 as he sat parked in his car near of the Yellow House. Serrano survived but his wife, in the passenger seat, was killed.

And in the 1950s and 1960s, the Yellow House was owned and operated by Augustine "Primo" Lazzara, said Tampa mafia historian Scott Deitche.

"Lazzara was considered by federal, state and local law enforcement to be a significant organized crime figure in Tampa," Deitche said. "And they also considered the Yellow House bar to be a hotbed of organized crime activity."

But as the mafia's power in Tampa waned, so did the popularity of the Yellow House, and by the late-1960s it shut down.

In 1968, according to news archives, there was talk of converting it into a coffeehouse but it never materialized.

By 1988, the building had been renamed the Tampa Eagle and housed a restaurant, a bar and sexual novelties store. Then in November that year, a fire broke out, drawing 40 firefighters and causing some $150,000 in damage.

The GVZ company purchased the building in 2006 for $348,000, according to property appraiser records,. The company told the Tampa Tribune at the time that the plan was to spend $800,000 to restore it. Nothing came of those efforts.

"There has been so much development and progress in Ybor since then," said the Orr with the Ybor City Development Corp.

"I think some things sat untouched for a lengthy period, but those owners are now stepping up and want to be part of the progress."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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