St. Petersburg's Driftwood neighborhood a big step closer to being officially historic

GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | TIMES
Though the Gandy house was torn down, the Driftwood neighborhood recently won a victory in its drive to gain historic status.
GABRIELLA ANGOTTI-JONES | TIMES Though the Gandy house was torn down, the Driftwood neighborhood recently won a victory in its drive to gain historic status.
Published October 11
Updated October 11

ST. PETERSBURG — Six months after the Driftwood neighborhood mourned the loss of its historic Gandy Home, advocates in the small enclave off Big Bayou are on the verge of claiming a significant victory.

In a unanimous decision Tuesday, the Planning and Preservation Commission agreed that the unique neighborhood in the city's southeast meets criteria to be designated a local historic district. Tuesday's vote sets the application for local designation, supported by a majority of Driftwood property owners, on the road to approval by the City Council.

The Preservation Commissioners heard requests for several properties to be excluded from the designation, but those were far outnumbered by supporters. Florida poet laureate Peter Meinke, who lives amid the towering oaks and indigenous undergrowth, even read an ode to the neighborhood. Ray Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin Professor of Southern History at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, and author of St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream, is not a Driftwood resident, but also spoke on behalf of the designation.

Later Peter Belmont, vice president of Preserve the ‘Burg, said it was exciting that the request for local historic designation of the secluded neighborhood behind the Chattaway restaurant was so well received by the commission.

“On the other hand, if it would have been received any other way, it would have been a surprise. It clearly meets the designation criteria,” he said. “We have wonderful neighborhoods in St. Pete, but Driftwood is among the most special.”

Driftwood has a unique history. It was the only area in Pinellas County to see armed conflict during the Civil War, was the site of the county's earliest post office and of Prohibition-era bootlegging. Its tree canopy shades winding, sidewalk-free roads and its eclectic architecture includes homes designed during the 1930s by local artist Mark Dixon Dodd.

The waterfront Gandy Home had been the centerpiece of Driftwood. It was built in 1910 by shipbuilder Barney Williams, son of St. Petersburg's co-founder, Gen. John Constantine Williams. George "Gidge" Gandy Jr., who worked with his father and brother to build the Gandy Bridge, bought the house in 1921 and lived there with his family. Later, it was also the home of his daughter, Helen O'Brien and her family. In 2017, two years after her death, the house was put on the market. Buyers Timothy and Janna Ranney said it could not be saved, demolished it and announced plans to build a new home on the property.

A public hearing on the local historic designation is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Nov. 15.

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