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St. Petersburg's Merriwether Building crumbles after Irma

The Merriwether Building, in the 1000 block of 22nd Street S in St. Petersburg, was devastated by Hurricane Irma. The building once served as a segregation-era hotel for black baseball players and entertainers.
The Merriwether Building, in the 1000 block of 22nd Street S in St. Petersburg, was devastated by Hurricane Irma. The building once served as a segregation-era hotel for black baseball players and entertainers.
Published Sep. 15, 2017

ST. PETERSBURG — The morning after Hurricane Irma brushed the city, Elihu Brayboy got a call saying that a portion of the south wall of the historic but condemned Merriwether Building he and his wife have owned since 2011 had collapsed.

He arrived in time Monday to see fire officials cordoning off the area. A few hours later, he watched as the building that once served as a segregation-era hotel for visiting black baseball players, Pullman porters and entertainers was demolished.

"It was heartbreaking," Brayboy said. "But it will rise again to glory and to the service it gave to the community in the past."

Brayboy, who owns the property at 951-63 22nd St. S with his wife, Carolyn, said they plan to rebuild. They also said they'll proceed with their agreement with the Pinellas Ex-offender Re-entry Coalition to build 24 units of long-term, affordable housing for female clients.

"Without the building, we have a lot more latitude with our planning," Brayboy said. "It doesn't have to look like the Merriwether building looked."

He added that the historic site will be recognized.

"Now we've got to figure out how we are going to make it look now that we have a blank slate, but it will always be the site of the Merriwether Building," said Brayboy, who grew up in St. Petersburg and remembers when that area of 22nd Street S was the heart of the African-American business community.

But the building with the second-floor balcony and ground-floor storefronts, where one of the last holdouts sold a popular "$2 holler breakfast," will never look the same. In 2012, the Brayboys requested a historic landmark designation for the 1925 building that was once owned by black contractor John H. Merriwether. But the designation came with drawbacks, limiting redevelopment. Now they hope to expand beyond the historic footprint.

In a report, the city's Planning and Economic Development Department described the building as "a significant commercial and cultural landmark in the African-American community."

The Merriwether, it added, "provided opportunities for the advancement of African-American and Jewish entrepreneurs during a period of racial and social restrictions."

At the time of the 2012 report, the building was already in disrepair. In the intervening years, conditions got worse.

"That was a building that we wanted to preserve," said Gwendolyn Reese, president of St. Petersburg's African-American Heritage Association. "The reason it was important is that it was through the era when 22nd Street was a thriving, bustling business district. … I was concerned about it when the roof collapsed and I saw a 'condemned' sign on it."

Brayboy said that the condemnation notice was issued in July and that he and his wife entered into an agreement with the building department to start work no later than mid August.

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He said work had been delayed over the years because of the inability to get financing. That's now in place. In 2016 the city awarded the Brayboys a $220,000 grant for renovation of the building. That money was contingent on the completion of a mixed-use project. Now it's all residential and the funding has been reduced to $90,000, said Rick Smith, a community redevelopment coordinator for the city.

Former St. Petersburg Times (now Tampa Bay Times) reporter Jon Wilson, who wrote the book St. Petersburg's Historic 22nd Street S with the late Rosalie Peck, is sad to see the Merriwether's demise.

"That building is absolutely awash in history, not only for the African-American, but also for the Jewish presence in St. Petersburg, because the S&S Market operated below. That store lasted a long time," said Wilson, who is vice president of the African-American Heritage Association.

Mayor Rick Kriseman tweeted Monday: "Our community did suffer a casualty last night — the historic Merriwether Building. We had looked fwd to its renovation, revival one day."

Brayboy said Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin visited the property Tuesday and "have given us a strong commitment of support."

He said he hopes the mayor's pledge means that the city will sell him two adjacent properties it owns on the north side of the Merriwether. "Those lots are critical to the redevelopment," he said.

Mayoral spokesman Ben Kirby said that the mayor will contact Brayboy again after the city recovers from the storm.

Brayboy said that on Monday he tried to get his contractor to the site to shore up the collapsed wall, but the storm hindered his arrival. But by the afternoon, the city had declared the property a safety hazard and ordered its demolition.

"It happened very quickly," he said. "It was somewhat sad to see it torn down. Hurricane Irma had its impact on us, for sure."

Contact Waveney Ann Moore at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283. Follow @wmooretimes.

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