'Doc Webb' House cleared for demolition after St. Pete City Council rejects historic status

The former home of James “Doc’’ Webb, founder of Webb’s City, will not be declared a historic landmark. (JAMES BORCHUCK  |  Times)
The former home of James “Doc’’ Webb, founder of Webb’s City, will not be declared a historic landmark. (JAMES BORCHUCK | Times)
Published May 10, 2019

ST. PETERSBURG — Efforts to have the former home of James E. "Doc Webb'' declared a historic landmark have failed, clearing the way for its demolition and the construction of four new houses.

By a 4-2 vote Thursday night, the City Council rejected a compromise that would have spared the nearly century-old house where Webb lived while operating "The World's Most Unusual Drug Store'' near downtown St. Petersburg. Owners Karen and Merrill King had agreed to the compromise until an 11th-hour change that left them "wary and weary,'' their attorney said.

After listening to nearly two dozen speakers, the council decided that the Kings have the right to sell to David Weekley Homes, because they had a letter from the city saying their property could be developed into four "buildable'' lots.

"I support preservationism,'' council member Lisa Wheeler-Bowman said, "but the homeowners have rights as well.''

Webb lived in the stately house in Allendale Terrace from 1935 to 1974, the period when his sprawling store with its dancing chickens, live "mermaids'' and 5-cent haircuts became nationally renowned. The store was demolished in the 1980s, and Anne Dowling and other neighbors argued that the house should be preserved as one of the few tangible reminders of a man who figured prominently in the city's history and development.

Looking back: A final sale for Webb's City (Aug. 19, 1979)

After the Kings contracted last fall to sell to Weekley Homes, Dowling filed an application on behalf of a newly formed association to have the house and all four lots designated as a local historic landmark. The Kings, who planned to use the sale proceeds to buy a retirement home in North Florida, strongly objected to the application.

At a hearing last month, the city's Community Planning and Preservation Commission approved the designation for just one lot and the house, but not for a pool, a porte cochere (carriage entrance) and other elements that Webb added around 1935. The Kings agreed to that plan but balked this week at a new requirement to keep all or part of the wall in front of the house.

Thursday's council hearing was marked by strong language from opponents and supporters of historic designation. One speaker accused the Kings of being "poor stewards'' of the Webb house, while others rapped them for selling to "greedy developers'' who want to put up "bland, cookie-cutter houses'' in an area known for its variety of gracious older homes.

Dowling, who did not speak with the Kings before filing the application, was in turn blasted as "back-stabbing and "mean and vicious'' in her efforts to save the house.

Several council members and other speakers agreed that allowing third parties to seek historic status for properties they do not own is causing too many ugly fights.

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Catherine Landstra said she supported the historic designation for the Webb house, but added: "We need something so neighbors don't end up fighting other neighbors and creating such an acrimonious situation.''

"This third-party designation gives me heartburn,'' Wheeler-Bowman said while fellow council member Amy Foster said, "It's time for us to review the process.''

Foster and Darden Rice were the only votes in favor of designating the house and one lot as a local historic landmark. Wheeler-Bowman, Ed Montanari, Brandi Gabbard and Gina Driscoll voted against. Steve Kornell was absent and chair Charles Gerdes recused himself because a former law partner represents Dowling.

The Kings' attorney said the $960,000 sale to Weekley Homes, delayed once, is expected to close this summer.

"We're tired and numb,'' was Karen King's only comment after the vote.

"The bulldozers are coming," Dowling said, later adding that "we can only hope that the overwhelming support for landmarking estates such as Doc Webb's resonates with the city going forward.''

Contact Susan Taylor Martin at or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.