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Before the wrecking ball swings, can the stone marquee of St. Pete's old Pheil Hotel be saved?

This  marquis from the 1920s-era Pheil Hotel in dowtown St. Petersburg  could be hidden under a soffit added as part of a 1960s remodeling. With the hotel soon to be demolished, efforts are underway to find it and perhaps use it as an element of a tower planned for the site. Photo courtesy of the City of St. Petersburg.
This marquis from the 1920s-era Pheil Hotel in dowtown St. Petersburg could be hidden under a soffit added as part of a 1960s remodeling. With the hotel soon to be demolished, efforts are underway to find it and perhaps use it as an element of a tower planned for the site. Photo courtesy of the City of St. Petersburg.
Published Sep. 27, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — The Pheil Hotel hosted its last guests while Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. The building itself soon will be dust.

But as a date with the wrecking ball draws near, a small part of the nearly 100-year-old hotel could survive.

A city staffer recently found photos showing the original stone marquee with Pheil Hotel in raised capital letters. An extensive remodeling in the 1960s covered the hotel and adjacent buildings with aluminum grillwork — giving them a cheese-grater appearance — but the marquee is still there, long hidden under a soffit.

Discovery of the photos prompted Derek Kilborn, manager of the city's historic preservation division, to email the demolition firm and the broker handling the sale of the 2.2 acre site on Central Avenue that includes the hotel.

"This lettered marquee would make a great interpretive element for the new owner in whatever design plans they have for the property,'' Kilborn wrote. "Alternatively, it would make a great donation to the Museum of History. I encourage you to consider verifying its location on the building and then consider a tactical extraction for preservation.''

Workers subsequently broke out a section of soffit over one of the hotel's two doorways. Though hard to see through the dark hole, the marquee appears intact.

Can it be saved?

"So far it doesn't look great,'' said broker Mark Stroud. "It's just one of those things that could be excessively expensive to remove and there's no guarantee it won't crumble. It could cost tens of thousands of dollars, and nobody has really stepped up.''

Previous coverage of the Pheil building: As development nears, a look inside a St. Pete building frozen in time

The Pheil family and a real estate investment trust currently own the 400 block of Central, one of the most valuable sites still available for redevelopment in booming downtown St. Petersburg. The block is under contract to the Red Apple Group, a New York company headed by a billionaire who has hired St. Petersburg architect Bill Harvard and has tentative plans for a mixed-used tower.

But "there are so many different options out there,'' said Stroud, who toured the site last week with Red Apple members. "They're meeting with people and trying to figure out what makes sense.''

Stroud said some artifacts from the hotel have been saved — including parts of the "cheese-grater'' — but that removal of the marquee could delay demolition, scheduled for completion by Thanksgiving. "It's not like we can shut that site down for three weeks so we can play with that sign,'' he said.

Previous coverage: How will this 11-story former hotel in downtown St. Petersburg be destroyed?

Representatives of the Pheil family, descendants of the early St. Petersburg mayor who built the hotel, did not respond to requests for comment on whether they would foot the bill to preserve the marquee bearing their name.

It is not known what the Red Apple Group is paying for the 400 block of Central, though a nearby block sold for $17.2 million two years ago.

Peter Belmont of St. Petersburg Preservation, which at one point tried to stop the hotel's demolition, said that either the Pheils or the new owners could afford the expense of rescuing the marquee.

"My guess,'' he said, "is that the cost is insignificant compared to the size of the project and the profits expected.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at smartin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate