TAMPA — Safety concerns have kept the public out of downtown Tampa's historic Jackson House for three decades.
With broken windows, a sagging roof and splintering wooden walls, it looks as though the slightest breeze could topple the century-old structure.
But on Saturday, researchers were given full access to the building that served as a 24-room boarding home for visiting African-Americans during the era of segregation — James Brown and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. among them.
Using laser scanning technology, a team from the Tampa Bay History Center and the University of South Florida recorded every inch inside and outside the two-story, 4,000-square-foot structure at 851 E Zack St.
Next, they will create a 3D digital replica.
The work will one day make the Jackson House accessible to the public through a virtual tour available at the downtown History Center.
But the scans might also help preservationists open the real Jackson House to the public once again.
"This data we collected is routinely used by people like architects and engineers that are doing analysis or restoration and preservation kind of work," said Lori Collins who led the scanning work in her job with the USF Libraries Digital Heritage and Humanities Collections department.
The timing of the project couldn't be better.
The historical value of the building, owned by the nonprofit Jackson House Foundation Inc., has been raised during ongoing candidate forums in the race for mayor of Tampa. So far, candidates have spoken only in generalities about whether it should be restored or demolished and rebuilt.
"This is the first step that is necessary for anything like that to happen," Collins said.
The interior of the building "is certainly in need of repair," said History Center chief executive C.J. Roberts, but he was surprised by what still remains intact — trim elements, for example, and a hearth in the community room.
Collins calls her team's work "building forensics." Data collected by USF and the History Center will provide details about the condition of the foundation and its load-bearing walls. They'll have answers in a few weeks, once their work has been analyzed.
"We can get down to half a human hair type of accuracy," USF's Collins said. "Even very specific architectural features that are smaller, like hinges, are documented."
A preservationist can use the data to recreate such features with 3D printing in restoration work
What's more, if a building is demolished, either by nature or man, a new one can be erected that perfectly mimics the original.
"The digital map that will be created will be very useful for preservation endeavors," Roberts said.
Still, the focus of the Jackson House recording is to recreate the building for a virtual tour, part of an ongoing History Center-USF partnership to scan the museum's collection as well as local historic sites.
Using architectural schematics, old photos and oral histories, they will return the virtual Jackson House to its prime.
"We are in the storytelling business," Roberts said, "and this is a vehicle that we can use to tell the story of what the Jackson House meant to the community."
The boarding house was built at the turn of the 20th century by Moses Jackson. Jackson first built his family home on the site then came to realize the location might better serve as a place for African-American travelers to stay in downtown Tampa.
It was near the Union Station train depot and the African-American district of Central Avenue, known as the Harlem of the South for the top black musicians who performed at its night clubs.
James Brown, Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway all stayed in the Jackson House. When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Tampa in 1961, he made a point to visit the Jackson House, too.
The house stopped taking boarders in 1989. Later, it was named to the National Register of Historic Places and Florida's Black Heritage Trail.
Still, it fell into such disrepair that city code officials declared the structure unsafe and fenced it off.
The Jackson House Foundation, whose board members all are descendants of Moses Jackson, could not be reached for comment.
A year ago, the nonprofit group stabilized the building in hopes that one day it will become a museum.
Through the years, estimates of the cost have ranged from $1 million to $3 million.
Roberts of the History Center said he hopes someone will step up and save the Jackson House.
If they don't, it will at least endure in a virtual sense.
"I want someone to someday walk into an area of our gallery," he said, "and, with a little imagination, feel like they are in the Jackson House."
Contact Paul Guzzo at email@example.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.