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Historic Black clubhouse in St. Petersburg faces uncertain future

The Melrose Clubhouse, dedicated in 1942, served St. Petersburg's Black community during segregation and beyond.

ST. PETERSBURG — At a time of impassioned discussion about whether to honor, destroy or mothball monuments and buildings that recall a controversial past, there’s uncertainty about the fate of a local segregation-era landmark.

The historic Melrose Clubhouse at 1801 Melrose Ave. S once was the center of civic and social gatherings for Black residents. Built as a meeting place for the City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs and dedicated in 1942, it hosted fundraisers for such causes as the segregated Mercy Hospital, welcomed Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups and was the site for a Black branch of the YMCA.

It was made a local historic landmark in 1993.

Last spring, the Pinellas County School District bought the building as part of its expansion of Melrose Elementary School, which it is rebuilding. Now, some in the Black community, along with a preservation group, are worried that the old building on the school’s new campus could be razed.

Pearl Sly, Vassie Walker and Anne Robinson, original members of the Melrose Women's Club, whose clubhouse sits adjacent to Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg, celebrate with hard hats and shovels at the groundbreaking for a new building for Melrose. Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers and State Rep. Wengay Newton assist Walker with her hat. The Women's Club, which sold its property to the school district for the expansion of the school, has been a regular supporter of Melrose Elementary.
Pearl Sly, Vassie Walker and Anne Robinson, original members of the Melrose Women's Club, whose clubhouse sits adjacent to Melrose Elementary School in St. Petersburg, celebrate with hard hats and shovels at the groundbreaking for a new building for Melrose. Pinellas County School Board member Rene Flowers and State Rep. Wengay Newton assist Walker with her hat. The Women's Club, which sold its property to the school district for the expansion of the school, has been a regular supporter of Melrose Elementary.

But School Board member Rene Flowers, who was on the City Council that approved the building’s historic designation and advocated for the purchase of the clubhouse, said there are no such plans.

“There are a number of proposals that are on the table,” she said. “We have not voted on anything.”

There has been discussion about the district donating the building and having it moved to either John Hopkins Middle School or the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum’s proposed new site, she said.

Another option is “creating an outdoor-type amphitheater. That way, the parents from the community and the community itself could utilize it themselves,” Flowers said. “We have not decided on anything, and we are going to have additional discussions. Nothing has been cast in stone.”

A rendering of a proposal to convert the historic Melrose Clubhouse into an amphitheater
A rendering of a proposal to convert the historic Melrose Clubhouse into an amphitheater [ The Pinellas County School District ]

Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg, was concerned when shown a rendering of the proposed amphitheater.

“Based on the rendition, it appears that the renovations would be substantial, and I am concerned about how it would impact the integrity of a historic building,” she said. “I am hoping it will be restored as a museum and as an educational tool, preserving the physical integrity and the legacy of the building itself.”

Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg
Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg [ Gwendolyn Reese ]

St. Petersburg’s Black community already has lost many of its historic buildings, she said.

The women whose idea it was to build the clubhouse included names that still resonate in the city’s Black community. Fannye Ayer Ponder, the wife of a prominent doctor, founded the local chapter of the National Council of Negro Women and sold thousands of dollars in World War II war bonds to help build a U.S. Merchant Marine Liberty ship, the SS Harriet Tubman. It was the first to honor a Black woman.

There was educator and activist Olive B. McLin and also businesswoman Mary McRae. The McRae Funeral Home still operates on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street S.

The women of the federation of clubs collaborated with Black and white St. Petersburg residents to build the clubhouse, envisioned as a place “to promote better educational advantages ... social and civic improvements; establish recreation for young people and to educate the citizenry toward better and higher standards of living.”

Preserve the 'Burg executive director Monica Kile.
Preserve the 'Burg executive director Monica Kile. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

Monica Kile, executive director of Preserve the ‘Burg, expressed the organization’s concern about the fate of the clubhouse in a June newsletter. Preserve the ‘Burg, she said, is working with the African American Heritage Association, the Woodson Museum and the Deuces Live group “to ensure that the Melrose Clubhouse is preserved and remembered for generations to come.”

During an interview, Kile said that Preserve the ‘Burg hopes the clubhouse, which had been “a center for the Black community and civic life during a period of strict segregation in St. Petersburg,” will be “reused in place.”

“It’s a designated local landmark, which the school board knew when they purchased it,” Kile said. “It would be a really bad precedent to allow the school district to demolish a significant portion of the building, particularly because it is one of the few designated local landmarks that relate to the history of the Black community in St. Pete.”

Change for the clubhouse began in 1959, when the school district bought a portion of its property to build Melrose Elementary. In 2004, the district tried to buy the building itself, but was unsuccessful.

The historic structure is in City Council member Gina Driscoll’s district. She said she met with school superintendent Mike Grego and another staff member a month ago to see the new Melrose school and to look at the clubhouse.

“They had told me at that time that they wanted to look at a couple of options with the city to re-purpose it in some way. One of the options would be to move it. If that could be done, and that’s the best thing for everybody, I would be supportive of it,” Driscoll said.

“They didn’t talk about a complete demolition of the building, but they talked about substantial change to the building. When they explained that idea to me, I could see where that would be beneficial to the school. What the city has suggested, and is supportive of, is keeping the building as it is and restoring and re-purposing it as a functioning space for the school and perhaps for the community, as well. I hope we can find a way to work together for a solution that works for everyone.”

The school district has no plans to demolish the building, “but to re-purpose it,” spokeswoman Isabel Mascareñas said, adding that there’s no timeline or rush on plans for the clubhouse. “Our focus right now is on safely reopening for the 2020-2021 school year. The district will seek community input first before moving forward with the historic building on the Melrose Elementary School site, and we will do what’s right for the community and the school.”

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