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.”
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.
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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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 biggest mystery surrounds the water that sometimes bubbles up from the Kress basement floor.
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 spring was capped while the store was in operation.
“There are a lot of stories here,” Bajnath said. “I love these buildings.”