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Preserving Tampa’s Kress and Woolworth blocks: Al Capone, a bubbling spring and racism

Owner Carolyn Wilson hopes to keep alive the rich local history in the old downtown buildings she owns.
A bank vault that's in the basement of the old Franklin Exchange Bank building in downtown Tampa.
A bank vault that's in the basement of the old Franklin Exchange Bank building in downtown Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Published Jan. 22, 2020

TAMPA — The old Federal Exchange Bank has bullet holes dating to Tampa’s gangster era.

The former F.W. Woolworth building still has the wall tiles that civil rights activists looked upon as they demanded service at a lunch counter.

The vacant Kress department store has a spring bubbling up in the basement, a place where Native Americans would likely have gathered hundreds of years before.

All told, these swaths of downtown Tampa — in the 600 and 800 blocks of North Franklin Street — offer a unique lesson in local history. Their owner, Carolyn Wilson of the Wilson Co., hopes to keep the history alive.

“I don’t like to build new things. My husband did that,” said Wilson, whose late husband Jack Wilson built the Cypress Center and the New York Yankees’ Legends Field in Tampa. “I like to take old things and make them pretty and useful again.”

The old Exchange National Bank building in downtown Tampa.
The old Exchange National Bank building in downtown Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Related: Headstones in a lake? On an Odessa farm, signs of a forgotten black cemetery.

Wilson also is working to preserve history at another property she owns — a farm in Odessa where she puts horses out to pasture and where, she recently learned, the area’s African-American community buried its dead in the early 20th century.

“None of this is a hard decision,” she said. “We do what is right.”

Wilson has already turned the 600 block’s old Federal Exchange Bank into an events space. She bought it 20 years ago.

A view of event space inside of the old Exchange National Bank building in downtown Tampa.
A view of event space inside of the old Exchange National Bank building in downtown Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Related: Tampa's historic Kress block sells to the Wilson Company for $9 million

She will focus next on the 800 block’s Woolworth, Kress, Newbury and Marilyn Shoes buildings, all of which she purchased two years ago.

One day she might do further restoration on the bank building, finding a new purpose for its basement — criss-crossed with old bank vaults now used for Halloween parties and storage.

“We’ve not decided on anything for any of the buildings,” said Jon Bajnath, director of commercial services for The Wilson Co. “So, for now, we enjoy the history and hope to learn more.”

One thing Bajnath wonders: Why does a bank vault at the Federal Exchange Bank have two acrylic glass windows riddled with bullet holes?

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A cracked window riddled with bullet holes are visible in the basement vault of the old Federal Exchange Bank building in downtown Tampa.
A cracked window riddled with bullet holes are visible in the basement vault of the old Federal Exchange Bank building in downtown Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Chicago underworld boss Al Capone, who owned property in St. Petersburg, is rumored to have banked with the Tampa firm, Bajnath said.

It’s likely other bad guys did, too. The late-author and historian Ferdie Pacheco referred to Tampa as the “Dodge City of the South” for its deep ties to organized crime and sometimes lawless ways at the turn of the 20th century.

Related: Historians now agree: Ybor City's tunnels were built as sewers, not smuggling routes

This reputation leads Bajnath to believe the bullets were fired during a robbery. The bank opened at 611 N. Franklin St. in the late-1800s.

“This was a federal exchange,” Bajnath said. “Money was brought here to be distributed throughout Florida."

It appears the robbery may have been a success.

“The bullet holes are on the plexiglass inside the vault,” Bajnath said. “They got to where the cash was. I’d love to know the story”

On the other hand, the Woolworth’s store two blocks over at 801 N Franklin St., has a well-known place in local history.

The Woolworth department store in downtown Tampa is where African-American students from Blake and Middleton High Schools held a lunch counter sit-in in 1960.
The Woolworth department store in downtown Tampa is where African-American students from Blake and Middleton High Schools held a lunch counter sit-in in 1960. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Part of it is the long rectangular stain on the floor.

“It’s from the old lunch counter where they had the sit-ins,” Bajnath said.

The protest on Feb. 29, 1960, led to the desegregation of city lunch counters.

Tiles from the era still line the wall.

Developer Wilson would like to restore them and maybe build a new lunch counter.

“It would be a shame to destroy that history,” she said.

Tile pieces of the counter cafe are visible where African-American students from Blake and Middleton High Schools held a lunch counter sit-in at the Woolworth department store in 1960.
Tile pieces of the counter cafe are visible where African-American students from Blake and Middleton High Schools held a lunch counter sit-in at the Woolworth department store in 1960. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Related: Tampa honors 1960 sit-ins that desegregated downtown lunch counters

Wilson feels the same way about the terrazzo tile sidewalk sign for the Marilyn Shoes chain store that once occupied the block at 807 N. Franklin St.

“Whatever we put here should have the name Marilyn in it,” Wilson said.

Marilyn Shoes advertisement is seen outside the Kress building in downtown Tampa.
Marilyn Shoes advertisement is seen outside the Kress building in downtown Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

The four-story building at 811 N. Franklin St. that once housed the S. H. Kress & Co. five and dime department store still carries reminders of the thriving downtown shopping district of the early through mid-20th century. The district started fading with the opening of shopping malls.

The Kress building in downtown Tampa.
The Kress building in downtown Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]
Related: Internet buying is killing the malls, reminding some shoppers that malls killed the downtowns
The first floor of the Kress building in downtown Tampa.
The first floor of the Kress building in downtown Tampa. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

Still intact at the Kress building are old racks leaning against walls, oven hoods in the basement employee cafeteria, and rows of indentations on the first floor.

Wilson believes they formed over the years from the weight of the racks. Bajnath has a different theory.

“The racks and tables were set up around those indentations,” Bajnath said. “The indentations were created by feet as people walked in and out as they shopped.”

The floor of the vacant Kress building in downtown Tampa has indentations that date back to its era as a vibrant store.
The floor of the vacant Kress building in downtown Tampa has indentations that date back to its era as a vibrant store. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

The biggest mystery surrounds the water that sometimes bubbles up from the Kress basement floor.

Related: Government Spring was a cradle of downtown development. But where is it?

It’s a natural spring, Bajnath said — a source of fresh water that would have made it a gathering spot for Native Americans who first occupied the area and later for those Europeans and their descendants who settled Tampa.

The old cafeteria in the bottom floor of the Kress building in downtown Tampa also has a natural spring that was likely used as a source of fresh water hundreds of years before the store was built.
The old cafeteria in the bottom floor of the Kress building in downtown Tampa also has a natural spring that was likely used as a source of fresh water hundreds of years before the store was built. [ OCTAVIO JONES | Times ]

The spring was capped while the store was in operation.

“There are a lot of stories here,” Bajnath said. “I love these buildings.”

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