TAMPA — The historic city block containing the old S.H. Kress & Co. department store and a former F.W. Woolworth's, where 1960s sit-ins led to the peaceful desegregation of the city's lunch counters, was sold this week for $9 million.
The buyer is the Wilson Co., a real estate firm headed by president Carolyn Wilson, who is no stranger to ambitious projects to reclaim old buildings in downtown Tampa.
Her company bought and restored the Franklin Exchange building, just two blocks to the south on Franklin Street, after it had been slated for demolition in 1999. That property is now home to the headquarters of the Wilson Co., the Vault, a three-story event space inside the old National Exchange Bank, and CW's Gin Joint.
Wilson said she fell in love with the Kress, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, when she went to Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn's state of the city speech there in 2013.
"We're just in love with the whole block," she said Thursday evening. "We're going to restore it. We're not going to tear down anything."
Buckhorn, who picked the Kress for his speech in the hope that a buyer would emerge, said he could not be more excited that the block had finally changed hands.
"That is a pivotal block in our urban transformation," he said. "Knowing that it is in the hands of the Wilson family, who has a keen appreciation for the historic significance of that block, is a major step in the right direction."
Also happy is seller Jeannette Jason, whose family has owned the Kress block for nearly a quarter century. Jason herself has worked on development plans for and possible sales of the property for longer than that, only to see what seemed like solid deals unravel. One, which would have incorporated the historic department store into a 22-story tower, fell apart in late 2014.
"I'm happy to turn the keys over to Carolyn," Jason said. "I think the buildings will be in safe hands."
Jason and Wilson have been working on a deal for the better part of a year. After seeing other deals fail, Jason said she welcomed the clean contract that Wilson offered, as well as the short due diligence period she needed and the quick closing date. It was such a relief that at one point, Jason asked Wilson, "Where have you been?"
"The Wilson Co. has been around and known for as long as I've been here," said Jason, who nonetheless had not met Wilson before. "So close, but our paths never crossed."
Built in 1929 a block north of the Tampa Theatre, the Kress is adorned with bronze marquees, coats of arms and a terra-cotta renaissance revival facade. Inside are pendant lights and a 27-foot first-floor ceiling. Next door is the old Woolworth's storefront, the site of the sit-in that led to the peaceful desegregation of Tampa's lunch counters.
Wilson said there is no immediate development plan and no tenants are lined up for the building. An event space is a possibility for the Kress. She's thinking she would like to restore the historic lunch counter at the Woolworth's.
"We think it's a jewel in the rough," she said. "We have fuzzy plans, but we don't know exactly what we're going to do, except we're going to restore it."
Contact Richard Danielson at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3403. Follow @Danielson_Times