Egmont Key makes historic preservation list because it is threatened by climate change

The island is one of 11 properties listed for preservation in Florida.
Published May 18 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — Every year the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation picks 11 properties to highlight as the most threatened historic properties in the state.

This year, three of those sites are in the Tampa Bay area.

And one of them — Egmont Key — made the list because it is threatened by climate change.

"This is the first time a site has made the list due to the threat of sea level rise," said Clay Henderson, the president of the trust's board of trustees. "We see this as a new threat."

The loss of historic properties to a rising sea became a top concern for the trust, Henderson explained, after seeing the damage that Hurricane Matthew inflicted on St. Augustine last year.

As the October storm's eyewall skirted the oldest continuously occupied city in America, it sent a 7-foot storm surge swirling through the streets. Flooding affected all seven of its federally designated historic districts, damaging about half of the 2,000 properties in those areas.

"We have flooding records in St. Augustine that go back 500 years, and Matthew exceeded all previous flood events," Henderson said. As a result, he said, "it's got all of the historic preservation community thinking about how to deal with this."

A 2014 federal report compiled by 60 scientists found that Florida — flatter than Kansas, with water on two sides — is particularly vulnerable to a rising sea. Sea levels have risen by about 8 inches since reliable record keeping began in 1880, the report said, and are projected to rise another 1 to 4 feet by 2100. That effect has already made rain-related flooding worse in Miami Beach and Key West.

At Egmont, a picturesque island at the mouth of Tampa Bay, history has been fighting a losing battle with the waves for decades. When federal surveyors mapped its boundaries in 1875, Egmont Key was about 50 percent larger than it is today.

"The west beach used to be the center of the island," said Richard Sanchez, president of the Egmont Key Alliance. Government officials have tried to build the beaches back up by dumping more sand on them, he said, "but as soon as we get sand in place, it washes away."

The main historic buildings on Egmont are the lighthouse, which dates back to 1858 but is still in use, and Fort Dade, built in 1898 to defend the bay against invaders during the Spanish-American War. Two of the fort's gun batteries on the south end of the island are now 100 yards offshore, Sanchez said.

Sanchez said he couldn't gauge how much rising sea levels will continue to drive the island's continued erosion woes. But he pointed out that during a storm last year — he could not recall which one — the surge reached the lighthouse and damaged the electrical system. The lighthouse sits a quarter mile inland on the highest point on the island.

"Normally the building where the electrical connections are doesn't flood," he said.

The Florida Trust for Historic Preservation was formed in 1976 to save the state's historic Capitol building. Now the nonprofit works to promote the preservation of Florida's architectural, historical and archaeological heritage.

The public nominates properties to include on each year's "11 to Save List." This year's list will be officially announced at 10 a.m. today at the Palladium in St. Petersburg.

Over the years the trust has scored some wins, said trust executive director Melissa Wyllie, such as Miami's Little Havana. Earlier this year it was listed as a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Places.

The group has also seen some big defeats, she said, including the loss of the Belleview Biltmore Hotel in northern Pinellas County. It was built in 1897 by railroad magnate Henry Plant but closed in 2009. Much of it was dismantled last year.

The other two Tampa Bay properties on this year's "11 to Save" list are both in Hillsborough County. One is "The Nest," also known as the Moseley Plantation, built in 1886 in Brandon. The other is the Jackson House, built in 1899 in Tampa.

The Nest is that rare bird among Florida properties, a place that's been owned by the same family since it was first built by Charles Scott Moseley and his wife, artist Julia Daniels. The wall in one room was displayed as part of the Florida exhibit in the 1892 World's Columbian Exhibition in Chicago. The 15-acre site is threatened by development.

The Jackson House was built in one of Tampa's oldest African-American neighborhoods, known as "the Scrub." Its second owner, Moses Jackson, converted it into a boarding house, and over the decades its guests have included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Count Basie and Billie Holiday. Although spared from demolition, the building remains in poor condition.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at Follow @craigtimes.