The letter from the Tampa city attorney’s office said it all: The historic Jackson Rooming House posed an “immediate hazard.” The two-story, segregation-era stopover for figures from Nat King Cole to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was broken down, and efforts to save the 100-year-old downtown landmark had stalled. “It’s a risk to passersby,” Tampa’s mayor declared. “We knew this day was coming. ... It’s sad. It’s not fixable. It may be historic, but (it’s) damaged beyond repair.”
That was 10 years ago, and the mayor was Bob Buckhorn. But his assessment of the Jackson House was right then — and, unfortunately, it’s the same gloomy reality today.
Built in phases between 1905 and 1920, the Jackson House was Tampa’s only 24-room boardinghouse for African Americans during segregation. It’s described as the last authentic, remaining piece of Central Avenue, a once-vibrant Black business district whose nightclubs showcased the nation’s best-known Black singers, before construction of the interstate and urban decline led to the district being razed in the 1970s.
The Jackson House is still (sort of) standing. Closed to the public since 1989, the structure looks ready to fall apart, with a sagging, pockmarked roof, walls sliding to the ground and open windows exposed to the wind, rain and humidity. Wooden stabilizers installed in the home’s interior in 2016 help prevent it from falling over completely. But this month, the architect hired for the house’s restoration predicted it could not survive a major storm. With hurricane season here, it’s finally time to get practical, and for Tampa to save what it can while it can.
The Jackson House Foundation owns the building and wants to turn the site into a Black history museum. The foundation has raised about $3 million toward that anticipated $4 million cost. The holdup is a buffer the fire code requires between the Jackson House and neighboring parking lots. So far, the foundation and the parking lot owners have not agreed to a deal.
The big problem here isn’t money, but time. Neglect over the years has stripped the Jackson House of much of its original construction. If too much must be replaced with modern materials, the house could lose its historic landmark designation, and a $1.5 million state historic preservation grant could be in jeopardy. More pressing, the building is unstable. Does it make sense holding out for a total rebuild if delays cause the building to collapse?
Tampa City Council member Bill Carlson has a better idea: Have the house meticulously taken apart by expert advisers, with each piece marked and archived so it could later be rebuilt. Carlson also wants the city to explore how to take ownership of the land, and he’s asked staff for a report by the end of July.
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We’d take that idea a step further. Salvage what you can from Jackson House and rebuild a replica. That’d be quicker and likely cheaper, and far better than continuing to endanger the historic features of the original building. A replica from some of the original parts would have far more meaning than a full-scale facelift with artificial components. Also consider relocating the house to nearby Perry Harvey Sr. Park. The city park is large and easily accessible, and it already honors the history and culture of the former Central Avenue district. This could be a win-win that reignites interest in the Jackson House and the park alike.
It’s understandable that Carolyn Collins, the foundation chairperson, and others who’ve worked long and hard on this effort oppose scaling back or relocating the building. But there is an opportunity here to retell the Jackson House story in the community where it thrived. Well-intentioned local leaders — from former Hillsborough Tax Collector Doug Belden to former Tampa City Council member Linda Saul-Sena — took up this cause a decade ago, and it’s time that Tampa had something to show for it. Better to preserve something rather than nothing, and to finally make this historic landmark a public destination again.
Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, Sherri Day, Sebastian Dortch, John Hill, Jim Verhulst and Chairman and CEO Conan Gallaty. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news.