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Developer offers historic St. Petersburg home for free, with one catch

This home at 758 3rd Ave S. in St. Petersburg is a 111-year-old house linked to Elder Jordan, the former slave who built what is now known as the Manhattan Casino and after whom the Jordan Park housing project is named. A developer that plans to put up eight townhomes on the site will give away the two-story house - supposedly in very good condition for its age - to anyone who will move it.
Published Nov. 21, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — In its 111 years, the two-story Victorian house a few blocks south of Central Avenue has amassed an intriguing history.

It was built for a Methodist minister wounded at the battle of Gettysburg; might once have been home to local African-American leader Elder Jordan; and hosted winter visitors during the city's early boom years. In later decades, it again became a single-family house so well maintained that the property appraiser's office says it has an effective age of just 44 years.

And now it can be yours for free, with a catch.

In June, Tuxedo Townhomes LLC bought the corner lot at 758 Third Ave. S for $470,000 and plans to build eight townhomes where the house now sits. Tuxedo is offering to give it to anyone who can pay to move it — at an estimated cost of at least $100,000.

"We're just trying to find a new home for it,'' says Ben Gelston of Canopy Builders, the contractor on the project. "The problem is, it's an old house, it's two stories and with downtown growing as it is, it's hard to find a place'' to relocate it.

With so many of the city's early structures disappearing — the last wall of the 1920s Pheil Hotel on Central came down last month — St. Petersburg Preservation hopes that one of the city's oldest surviving homes can be saved. In remarkably good condition for its age, the 2,600-square-foot house still has its pressed tin ceilings, double-hung windows and two-story porch with gingerbread trim.

"It's incredibly intact,'' said Emily Elwyn, the organization's president. "It's in wonderful shape because it was never split into a million apartments. We've really lost these early Victorian homes because they're all in kind of the core of downtown'' where redevelopment is rampant.

The house was built in 1905 for Rev. Dr. James Oren Thompson, who fought for the Union during the Civil War and with his wife, Ellen, owned a Republican newspaper before they moved from West Virginia to St. Petersburg. Thompson, pastor of the First Avenue Methodist Church, wrote Methodist hymns still sung today while his wife was active in the local temperance movement.

St. Petersburg Preservation is teaming up with the city's African-American Heritage Association to try to confirm another significant aspect of the home's history — a connection to Elder Jordan.

Born into slavery around 1848, Jordan became one of the city's most influential African-American figures. During the segregation era, he established bus service for African-Americans and fought for them to have their own elementary school. He also donated land for what became the Jordan Park housing project, built houses and opened a dance hall now known as the Manhattan Casino.

The Victorian house is on the periphery of Pepper Town, one of the city's historically black areas, and there is evidence that Jordan, a carpenter by trade, either lived there for a time or had a woodworking shop there.

"We feel strongly that he either built or lived in the house,'' said Gwen Reese of the heritage organization. "We're definitely going to try to firm up that association and, yes, we're definitely hoping there would be someone or some organization that would be interested in paying to move the house or getting a grant of some sort.''

Given its age and good condition, Reese added, the house could be a free-standing museum or part of another museum.

"It could be decorated with period furniture and could be a learning experience to walk through and see what life was like in that period,'' she said.

If the house is moved, Tuxedo Townhomes would like to see it done by early next year so it can get going on its project. If not, the house, too, will be become just another lost part of St. Petersburg's history.

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

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