Daniel Ruth: Not all old buildings are worth preserving

Published Feb. 25, 2016

Here's a very, very simple question for all the hand-wringers who seem to regard the decrepit, old Pheil Hotel and Theater building as an historic edifice looming over the city as if the Hanging Gardens of Babylon had been transplanted to Central Avenue.

If you succeed in preventing the owners from selling the property in order for the structures to be razed, the chances are quite good then the so-called Cheese Grater Building will simply continue to sit empty, home only to squatters and assorted vermin. What then? Are you in the business of "preserving" historic mold?

Or put another way, I'm starting to push 70, but that hardly means I qualify for historic preservation status. Although, truth be told, even I'm amazed my liver has held out this long.

Respecting history is a wonderful thing. And certainly people like Peter Belmont, a leader of St. Petersburg Preservation, are to be lauded for all the very good work the group does in protecting the city's rich and diverse architectural legacy. Great job and thank you very, very much.

But not everything is worth preserving merely because it has some years attached to it. And the Pheil Hotel and Theater is a good example.

Located on Central Avenue and bounded by First Avenue S and Fourth and Fifth streets, the Pheil Hotel and Theater was built in 1916, and the adjacent Central National Bank was built in 1911. For the past several years, the property has been tied up in a complex legal entanglement involving a real estate investment trust and heirs to the Pheil family, which finally resulted in a resolution to at last put the property up for sale with the expectation any new owner will want to raze the structures, which have declined into disrepair.

And if there is continued opposition to the demolition of the buildings, that only makes the sale more problematic. And that means, while the preservationists could possibly prevail, they will win — nothing. The existing 100-year-old buildings will still be covered by the tacky cheese grater facade. No money will be extended by the owners to rehabilitate the creaky buildings.

There is a easy solution here. St. Petersburg Preservation could come up with the estimated $15 million or so to buy the property and then put several millions of dollars or more "preserving" the buildings. And everybody is happy.

Or perhaps put another way, being an ardent champion for preservation is a simply peachy thing. But if you are going to interfere with a perfectly legitimate real estate transaction between two private sector parties, don't you suspect you also have a fiduciary responsibility to assume the costs associated with preserving what you seem to hold so dear, especially if the preservationists are the ones who blew up the deal?

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Doesn't that seem only fair?

This isn't the same issue as the communitywide hissy fit over the razing of the inverted pyramid monstrosity at St. Petersburg's Pier. The Pier rebuilding was a public structure involving public funds. Arguments made by preservationists, many of whom also are involved in the Pheil Hotel and Theater debate, to resist redevelopment of the Pier were fair enough.

The Pheil family heirs aren't attempting to implode Mount Vernon. They simply want to sell their own building in a free market. And aren't private property rights worth preserving, too?