ST. PETERSBURG — Elihu Brayboy and his wife, Carolyn, believe they’ve been called to buy and restore properties and prosperity in the city’s historic African-American business district.
They recall when 22nd Street S — the Deuces — and the blocks around it flourished. So, in recent years, the Brayboys have been purchasing surrounding properties in their quest for a Deuces renaissance.
Their latest acquisition was a dilapidated, one-story commercial building that belonged to Dr. Gilbert H. Leggett, one of the city’s first African-American dentists and a civil rights activist.
They’d like to see the building at 2154 Ninth Ave. S designated a historic landmark, but the city administration is recommending that the request be denied. A public hearing is scheduled for Dec. 12. Last month, the Community Planning and Preservation Commission voted 5-2 in favor of the designation.
The couple, who bought the property early in 2018, said they made a commitment to the Leggett family to commemorate the dentist’s legacy. “We promised them in the purchase that we would retain the relationship to his history, that it would always be referred to as the Leggett Building and that we would do our best to make it a dynamic facility," Elihu Brayboy said.
In a city where third-party requests for historic designation have been rife with controversy, officials tend to welcome landmark requests from property owners themselves. But while acknowledging that the Leggett site “is worthy of recognition and documentation because of its historic significance," the city’s urban planning and historic preservation division has determined that “recent alterations ... have substantially undermined its historic integrity.”
Instead, it recommends “alternative opportunities to recognize the building’s history."
The Brayboys, who told the preservation commission that they would erect a historic plaque recognizing Leggett’s contributions, along with a mural, counter that the building was badly deteriorated when they bought it. They say they had to address code violations and that work was needed to save the property, where Leggett’s son, also a dentist and a civil rights activist, was later in practice.
In an email, James Corbett, the city’s director of codes compliance assistance, said there were 11 cases against the property in 2018. Violations included "various property maintenance issues," as well as inoperable motor vehicles, junk and outdoor storage.
Three cases this year included disrepair of the building’s fascia, soffit and roof and exterior doors. The property was also cited for broken windows, large holes in the parking lot and for partial demolition of the roof. Additionally, several doors, windows and interior walls were completely demolished before a building permit was approved. Brayboy said the plans were under review.
The Brayboys plan to restore the property and create four units of affordable retail, office and studio space. The elder Dr. Leggett constructed the masonry block building in 1959 and, according to the city, there were four commercial units, including a barber shop, grocery store and an insurance company. Leggett, who had his practice there, also made accommodations for his son, Dr. Gilbert M. Leggett.
The Brayboys bought the property under the corporate name, The Isaiah Project Inc. They say it’s in an area that’s important to them.
“We grew up here. We remember the vitality of the community in the 60’s, when we were going between middle school and high school," Elihu Brayboy said, adding that his wife lived near the Leggett property. His mother was a nurse at the segregated Mercy Hospital and his father owned a funeral home. “My growing up history is right in the epicenter of that area,” he said.
The Isaiah Project refers to a message Carolyn Brayboy received from a minister a year after she had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and was recovering, her husband said. He recalled that the minister stopped in the middle of his talk and approached Carolyn.
“He told her that God gave him a message for her and it was from Isaiah, Chapter 61, Verse 4. ‘You are to restore the ancient ruins, the wasteland and devastation of many generations,’” Brayboy said.
In 2008, they bought a property at 1025 22nd St. S. It had been the first black-owned commercial laundromat. “But when we looked from south to north from that location, looking at the corridor on 22nd Street, we saw nothing but abandoned buildings," Brayboy said.
"And I said to Carolyn, that was what that scripture was talking about. ... I said, we have a commitment to do this work.”