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St. Pete Beach to survey Pass-a-Grille's historic buildings

Published Jan. 2, 2015

ST. PETE BEACH — Pass-a-Grille's history is disappearing, a reality that is now the focus of city efforts to identify and preserve the best of the area's heritage.

The 150-acre, one-block-wide area contains an eclectic mix of architectural styles, ranging from simple wood, stucco and brick residential and commercial buildings dating to the early 1900s to modern concrete-block buildings raised above the flood plain.

Although not technically in the historic district, Pass-a-Grille's most iconic building is the Loews Don CeSar Hotel, built in 1928 and host to such historical figures as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Lou Gehrig and Al Capone.

The Gulf Beaches Historical Museum is in the first church built on a Pinellas County barrier island.

The island was a native fishing ground for thousands of years before it was discovered by Spanish explorers in the 1500s. In more recent times it was used as a campground for fishermen who grilled their catch on the island's beaches.

The first homesteader, Zephaniah Phillips, settled in Pass-a-Grille in 1886. About that time, Tampa cigar magnate Selwyn Morey began developing lots for houses and hotels along Pass-a-Grille.

The town of Pass-A-Grille Beach eventually was incorporated into the city of St. Petersburg Beach in 1957.

Pass-a-Grille, now St. Pete Beach's southernmost neighborhood, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989 and later expanded to cover most of the area south of 32nd Avenue.

In 2003, after the last historic structure survey, there were about 500 buildings remaining in Pass-a-Grille built between 1900 and the 1950s.

No one is sure how many of those are left.

"We lose as many as 10 historic buildings a year," said Vice Mayor Melinda Pletcher, who represents Pass-a-Grille on the City Commission.

She also served as chairwoman of the city's Historic Preservation Board for about 10 years, during which time she fought to both preserve the area's historic structures and develop architectural guidelines for new buildings.

Now, the city is again surveying Pass-a-Grille to determine what historic structures are left from the previous survey and add to the list any additional structures that meet federal guidelines for historic designation.

To qualify as a historic building, the structure must be at least 50 years old and not be significantly updated, Pletcher said.

Once identified as historic, a structure is exempted from Federal Emergency Management Agency rules that limit the amount of renovations that can be performed without requiring a building to be torn down or raised above the flood plain.

The new survey and report will be compiled by Georgia-based TRC Environmental Corp., which has completed similar projects throughout Florida, including in Pompano Beach, Hollywood, Pensacola and Key West.

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The $42,550 cost of the survey is being covered by a $41,000 state grant and in-kind donations from residents and business owners who are helping gather historical records.

TRC has already begun meeting with city staff to develop city and county tax assessment records and gather previous survey and research reports.

The group's planned program includes additional research into Pass-a-Grille's history, extensive fieldwork to identify and photograph historic structures and sites, and compile a list of architectural styles.

Each structure will be identified as either "contributing" or "noncontributing" within the district. Contributing structures that qualify for historic designation will be listed by address.

During the survey, TRC plans to hold at least two public meetings to discuss its findings.

A draft report is expected to be completed by late March for review by the city and a final report will be published by the end of April.

This year, the city conducted a series of workshops and community meetings to identify just what kinds of historic architecture residents want preserved and what kind of design standards would be appropriate for new construction.

Residents overwhelmingly said they want to preserve Pass-a-Grille's "quirky beach village" character and were concerned that many new McMansion-style buildings did not fit with the area's historic feel.

However, the city has yet to officially set enforceable design standards for the area.

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