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The Yellow House, former Ybor mafia bar during ‘the era of blood’, is demolished

The 105-year-old building was once a Mafia bar and illegal casino. A 1988 fire gutted the structure.
The Yellow House bar, built in 1915 and gutted by fire in 1988, has been razed. For three decades beginning in the 1920s, the building at 2210 N 15th St. in Ybor City was the scene of illegal gambling and police raids. [Times (2018)]

TAMPA — A 4,700-square-foot structure at 2201 N. 15th St., once known as the Yellow House, has been an eyesore since a 1988 fire took its roof, windows and a large section of one wall.

Still, historic preservationists hoped it could be saved.

The 105-year-old building was once a Mafia bar and illegal casino, during a time in Tampa’s history known as the “era of blood” for the deadly mob war that engulfed the city.

Because of its age and location inside the Ybor City historic district, the two-story building was considered a historic “contributing structure." It was protected from demolition as long as restoration didn’t prove to be too expensive.

But it was. The owner and the city agreed the building could not be saved and, earlier this month, it was razed.

Related: Historians now agree: Ybor City's tunnels were built as sewers, not smuggling routes

“It was an interesting piece of Tampa mob history," said Scott Deitche, a local Mafia historian. “There are FBI reports saying guys like Santo Trafficante Jr. went in and out of the place.”

The building’s owner, GVZ Yellow, headed by Phillip Gerardi of Gerardi Construction, did not respond to a request for comment.

A sign on the vacant property says the land is now for sale.

Until recently, this property at 2201 N. 15th St. was home to the Yellow House, a former Mafia bar. [PAUL GUZZO | Times]

In 2017, Gerardi submitted plans to the city to convert the building into a two-story, 8,392-square-foot commercial building with six occupants.

Because of its status as a contributing structure within a historic district, the building’s shell had to be restored and new work to its exterior had to mimic the original look.

It would have cost around $3.1 million to do so, according to Gerardi’s request for demolition, provided by the city to the Tampa Bay Times. Sfterward, the building would be worth only $1.4 million — a loss of $1.7 million.

What’s more, the structure had become a danger to the public, according to a third-party architectural assessment included in the request for demolition.

“The structural engineer observed a real hazard for the potential of brick to separate from the wall and fall onto the sidewalk,” wrote Kenneth Ferlita, the architect who helped preserve Ybor’s Italian Club.

A 1933 photograph of the Yellow House Cafe at 2201 15th Street. [Courtesy of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System.]

Built in 1915, the Yellow House at 15th Street and Palm Avenue most recently stood between Hillsborough Community College and the Hacienda Villas senior citizen apartments.

Tampa news archives from the 1920s through the 1950s describe law enforcement raids there to shut down games of bolita, an illegal lottery than ran rampant in Ybor during the era.

The late Tampa historian Tony Pizzo once told the Tampa Tribune that patrons stood in long lines before teller-like windows to play the numbers.

Assassins fired at numbers runner Fernando Serrano in 1933 as he sat parked in his car near the Yellow House. Serrano survived, but his wife, in the passenger seat, was killed.

“That was during the ‘Era of Blood’ that spanned 1929 to 1959,” Deitche said. “There were probably 30 to 40 killings as factions fought for control of the rackets.”

Related: Sixty years ago, a bolita operator was gunned down and the mob firmed its hold on Tampa

The building was later renamed the Tampa Eagle and housed a restaurant, a bar and sexual novelties store.

Then, in November 1988, a fire broke out, drawing 40 firefighters. The damage was estimated at $150,000 in damage.

The GVZ company purchased the building in 2006 for $348,000, according to property appraiser records. The company told the Tampa Tribune at the time that the plan was to spend $800,000 to restore it. Nothing came of those efforts.

“It looked like someone could lean on the building and knock it over,” Deitche said. “It didn’t look like it could be saved, but it’s a shame it’s gone.”