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Latest effort to save Tampa's historic Jackson House fizzles

The rooming house at 851 E Zack St. hosted the likes of Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, but its condition is too decrepit for it to be saved.
Published Oct. 23, 2013

TAMPA — It provided shelter to music legends on tour including James Brown, Billie Holiday, Nat "King" Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. got home-cooked meals there when he was in town.

As important to Willie Robinson, it was where his mother was born and where she died 89 years later in 2006.

But none of that will spare the Jackson Rooming House from what now seems like certain demolition as the most recent effort to save it has fizzled. The latest would-be champions for restoring the house on Zack Street in downtown Tampa, as well as city officials, say the building is in too great a state of disrepair.

"I was admittedly a little biased," said Robinson, who owns the house that his family ran for decades. "I had hoped history would trump everything else. It does not. I don't want it to be a safety hazard for the citizens of this city. Whatever it's going to be, I want the Jackson House to be remembered in a positive light."

Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden confirmed Tuesday what others had suspected. The more than 100-year-old, 24-room house was too damaged to restore without essentially rebuilding it from scratch.

Holes in the roof have allowed rain inside. The exterior of the wood-frame building is rotting in many places. Its foundation needs shoring and lead contaminates much of the wood. Pretty much every major system inside the house, from the plumbing to the electricity, is shot, Belden said.

"It's cost-prohibitive," Belden said of a restoration. "There's not a structural part of that building that can be saved right now. A strong wind would blow it over."

Belden, along with longtime friend and civic activist Marvin Knight, got involved in last-minute efforts to save the Jackson House after learning of Robinson's years-long effort to keep it from the wrecking ball. Robinson is facing daily fines from the city until the property is no longer deemed a safety hazard.

News stories have indicated that repairs on the 4,000-square-foot building could reach $1.5 million. The property has a market value estimated at $190,000, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser's Office, most of that reflecting how much its land is worth. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Even from outside, it's clear why the house was an inviting spot to out-of-town visitors in the days before integration: a big front porch and views of the city.

"At the time of segregation, it was the place to be, the safest place to be as well as the nicest place to be," Robinson said.

But the challenges to restoring the building are obvious. Parts of the roof are slanted and there is a large hole in the rear of it. Many of the window frames are no longer true rectangles, revealing problems with the foundation.

The city had previously ordered the removal of one of the chimneys, which was in danger of falling. Since it's close to the street and parking lots, city officials fear the building is a danger to passers-by.

"We can't have something that's going to hurt people," said Bob McDonaugh, the city's administrator of economic opportunity.

Belden said he had people who offered to provide windows, landscaping and other assistance. But then he rattled off numbers that make previous estimates to repair the building appear on the mark or low.

He said Alphonso Architects has volunteered to create a scale model that could be displayed at the Tampa Bay History Center or a proposed African-American history museum at Encore, the redevelopment taking place on the site of the former Central Park Apartments public housing complex. That way, at least its legacy will be preserved, he said.

"It's a sad situation," Belden said. "But we gave it everything we had."

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3387.

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