Peter Belmont, longtime preservation activist in the City of St. Petersburg, answers some of your questions about the nuances of historic preservation.
If a building could talk, one would certainly want to sit down with the Snell building, anticipating a fascinating and unique conversation. The hard part would be how to choose the topics to fit into a single conversation! Should the conversation include how the Snell managed to rise in 1928 as the bust was taking over St. Petersburg, and include stories about the building’s original owner/developer, C. Perry Snell, whose second career as a developer raised the value of more property on the Pinellas Peninsula than any other individual or group over a nearly forty year time span? Or, one could easily spend a day discussing the Snell’s architect, Richard Kiehnel, and the architectural style and detailing he chose, including the arcade that banker Hubert Rutland closed off after he purchased the building in 1943! Finally, the Snell could explain to you how today’s owners have used existing preservation incentives to again make the building one of the downtown stars and a building fit for modern times.
It will be interesting to see which of the various construction booms future historians will choose as the most transformative for St. Petersburg. Will it be the booming 1920’s when St. Pete transformed itself from small town to a leading tourist destination? Will it be the booming post World War II era when concrete block “suburban” homes spread across much of the city’s vacant land? Or, will it be the present era as the city has found itself taking center stage with rising popularity? A quick look back will help set the stage for understanding the Snell Buildings place in St. Petersburg’s development.
In 1920, St. Petersburg was still more or less a small town, its population pegged at 14,000 by the U.S. Census. By the mid’20’s the boom was in full force, the city’s growth was exploding and the city’s future never looked brighter, in part thanks to the marketing genius of city publicist John Lodwick. He tirelessly promoted the city using the themes of sunshine, bathing beauties and sports.
Perry Snell (far left in picture), a successful pharmacist from Bowling Green, Kentucky came to St. Petersburg for his honeymoon (with his first of several wives) in 1899. By 1904, they had moved permanently to St. Petersburg and he started a second career developing his new home city. Snell was an extensive world traveler; in Europe he gathered bits and pieces of ideas, artwork and artifacts for use in his buildings. In 1925, he planned Snell Isle as a prestigious series of homes in Spanish and Italian architectural style. Suddenly, however, by the end of 1925, the economy had turned and another chapter of boom-to-bust was starting, leaving much of the plan for Snell Isle incomplete. Snell, however, was intent on constructing an edifice, the “Snell Building” and it became the last significant building constructed downtown before the bust effectively ended city growth.
Construction of the “Snell” began in late spring 1928, with the stand-out feature of a single, ornate tower crowning the building. Few realize the original plans called for two towers and that the building foundation was designed with this in mind. The Depression, however, stopped the second tower from being built. Another significant feature, one that was common downtown at that time, was the arcade that stretched through the building from Central Avenue to the Open Air Post Office (1916). In the Arcade alone, there must have been twenty-five different tile designs used, many of which Snell brought from Europe and were mixed and matched without any sense of order or plan.
Overall, the building epitomizes the highly ornate Mediterranean Revival Style with Spanish influence associated with its prominent architect, Richard Kiehnel. Locally, he also designed the Rolyat Hotel, now Stetson School of Law. Some say Louis Sullivan created the skyscraper so Mr. Kiehnel could tack on his Spanish influence, while others suggest it was because of Kiehnel's influence that this style became characteristic in the early part of the 20th century for Central and South Florida.
The Snell contains probably every architectural detail that Spanish Architecture ever contained, from brackets supporting quadrafoiled arches to ornate wrought iron and moorish gothic windows . Materials include pink etowah marble from Georgia, keystone along the exterior façade from the Florida Keys and terra-cotta glazed tile. Few other buildings in St. Petersburg used terra-cotta as the skin of the building. The building also has a large copper canopy shading the sidewalks and, most remarkably for St. Petersburg, a basement. Shortly after construction started, it was believed an underground spring was breached, flooding the excavation and resulting in workers being called to the scene at 3 A.M. The original basement floor was poured two feet below the water table, a fact that would result in future and ongoing moisture problems.
For those who have lived in St. Petersburg during bygone decades, the Rutland name is sure to sound familiar. Hubert Rutland first got involved with banking in 1955, eventually leading to the creation of Rutland Bank. The Rutland family, dating from the 1920’s, operated downtown’s Rutland Department Store (located for many decades at the corner of Central Ave. & 5th St.). Rutland purchased the Snell building in 1943 and in 1950, amazingly, he decided to close off, partially demolish and construct a new floor at mid-level in the arcade. Luckily, he did little other work or maintenance to the building that would result in a loss of its other significant historic features. In 1980, Rutland sold an option for the building to an investor group headed by Robert B. Roberts, Jr. who, in turn, sold it to John Galbraith of Securities Fund Management, Inc. Shortly thereafter, with the assistance of local architect Charlie Canerday, Galbraith began restoring the building at a cost of approximately $2.5 million. The renovations included reopening the arcade and converting the building to offices.
Beginning in 2003, the Snell was again renovated and converted into 12 residential condos on its upper floors and ground level retail and basement office spaces. Today, it remains as one of downtown’s most desirable and unique residential addresses. As a result of its placement on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 (after being been designated as among the first of St. Petersburg’s local landmarks in 1986 )the Snell became eligible to use incentives from the historic preservation “tool box”, a way to help make the numbers “work” and to encourage reuse of historic buildings.
The St. Petersburg preservation program provides for the transfer of development rights (“TDR’s”) for locally or nationally designated historic buildings. TDR’s can be sold by the historic building owner on the private market to developers who wish to use the development “bonuses” to allow for increased building intensity for their proposed project. “ONE”, the new condo high rise on 1st Street, is one example of a downtown building that used the historic TDR program.
Another tool is a preservation easement. The owner of the historic building typically donates an easement for the building’s exterior façade to a historic preservation non-profit, meaning the non-profit will act as a check on any proposed changes to a building’s significant exterior historic features. In return, the historic building owner may receive a tax deduction and a lower tax assessment as the future development potential of the property is limited by the easement. More information about preservation incentives can be found by clicking here.
Without a doubt the question we hear the most often at PTB is: What’s going on with the old YMCA on 2nd Avenue South and 5th Street?
Despite the construction boom of the past several years, both with new construction and the renovation of historic buildings, little progress has been made on bringing the historic YMCA building back to life. Since 2014 when the present owner purchased it, he has repeatedly said that work would begin soon to convert the Historic Y into a boutique hotel, yet our community still waits. In some ways the situation harkens back several decades to the long, drawn-out story of bringing the Vinoy Hotel back to life. Many promises were made (and broken) about how and when the historic hotel would be renovated. Today the Vinoy is once again a landmark beauty on the waterfront. Let us be optimistic that eventually the historic “Y” will also be a building that helps keep St. Petersburg special!
The historic YMCA building is located downtown at the corner of 5th Street and 2nd Avenue South. Currently vacant, it sits on the same block as the historic Tramor Cafeteria that fronts 4th Street and has been most recently used as the Hofbrauhaus. Construction began on the YMCA building in 1925. It was one of the city's first community funded projects supported with $550,000 in donations. The building included a gymnasium with a running track suspended from the ceiling, lobbies for boys and men, club rooms, a cafeteria, facilities for boxing and wrestling, and a large swimming pool in the basement. (Still today, one can sneak a peek thru the windows located just above the 2nd Avenue sidewalk and catch a glimpse of the now empty swimming pool.) On the building’s third and fourth floors were 54 dormitory rooms that provided inexpensive lodging for men.
The YMCA closed the building’s residential program in 1989; its recreational facilities remained open until the YMCA relocated to a new building near Central Plaza in 2001. Subsequently, the historic YMCA building was sold several times. In 2005, much of the interior was demolished (some significant interior features still remain) in preparation for a condo conversion that failed to move forward. The last sale was for approximately 1.5 million dollars to an entity managed by Nick Ekonomou, a former FSU football star from Miami.
Current Owner’s Stated Plans
Ekonomou has stated on a number of occasions that he intends to convert the building into a boutique hotel and possibly add a new building on a small portion of the parcel between the historic building and the adjacent former St. Petersburg Times building. A number of years ago he told a Tampa Bay Times reporter that his plans were being delayed because his contractor had lost his license. Most recently, in a June 2020, Tampa Bay Times article he was quoted as saying the coronavirus has “put back the hospitality business.” Several years ago, the City started code enforcement action in an effort to ensure the building was not further deteriorating.
The City has affirmatively acted to address parking for the historic building which had been identified as an issue in successfully reusing the building. In 2012 City Council agreed to a partial street vacation for a portion of the streetscape around the building so it could be used for exclusive parking for the building’s users rather than for the public at large.
The property was determined eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places in 1985 and listed as a local St. Petersburg landmark in 1991. It was deemed significant for its architecture (an excellent example of the Mediterranean Revival style), as one of the early works associated with local architect Archie Parish, and for having been built by local contractors Edward S. Moore and Sons.
As a designated local landmark, demolition cannot proceed without issuance of a certificate of appropriateness ("COA") for demolition. To be entitled to such a COA, the owner/applicant must establish that no reasonable beneficial use can be made of the property. A COA application for demolition was made in 2012, city staff recommended denial, and ultimately the application was withdrawn.
In being declared eligible for the National Register, significant tax credits are available for building renovation. Let us hope the owner of the historic “Y” takes advantage of those tax credits to move forward with building renovation or offers the building to another buyer who will do so and the question “what is going on with the YMCA building” will no longer need be asked!
A reader posed the question: "Peter, is there a difference between “National Register” and “Local Register” designation of historic properties?
And Peter answered: "Yes! National and Local Listing of Historic Properties differ, and it is an important distinction! "
Listing a historic property in either the National Register or the Local Register encourages its reuse and preservation, and notes the property as an important touchstone of our national or local community’s shared heritage. But there are significant differences to the effects of national and local listing. This is primarily because national listing, unlike local listing, does not include regulatory review for alterations and demolitions of the listed property (unless a federally funded or permitted project like an interstate highway expansion is involved.)
The National Register of Historic Places, established in 1966, is overseen by the National Park Service. The National Register includes more than 95,000 properties that have been listed for their significance in American history, architecture, art, archeology, engineering, and culture. In St. Petersburg, 23 individual properties and 5 historic districts are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
For most homeowners, National Register listing for their home has little impact other than offering honorary recognition of the historic, archaeological or cultural significance of the property. In St. Petersburg, a National Register property which is not also locally listed, may be demolished without review just as any other non-historic property. To discourage demolition of a listed property, National Register listing allows a significant portion of the historic building’s renovation costs to be returned to the owner or developer in the form of a tax credit, but only for income producing properties . In Florida, between 2002 and 2015, there were 163 Historic Tax Credit projects completed, resulting in the creation of more than 15,000 jobs and in excess of 1 billion dollars spent in development costs.
Like the majority of local governments, St. Petersburg has adopted a local historic preservation ordinance. It provides for creation of a local historic preservation commission, a local listing (landmark) process for individual properties and districts, and a review process for proposed exterior alterations or demolition of listed buildings. City Council renders the final decision on landmark applications. The city made its first local designation in 1986; today, the city has nearly 120 individually listed properties and ten historic districts.
To find which properties in St. Petersburg are either listed locally or on the National Register, check out the city’s historic preservation map (hint, be sure to use the “layer list” tool at the top of the map). Go to: https://egis.stpete.org/portal/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=568fd49870734fc6aa2fd76fac573988
To find out more about the National Register, go to: https://www.nps.gov/subjects/nationalregister/what-is-the-national-register.htm
To find out more about the St. Petersburg Register of historic properties, go to: http://www.stpete.org/history_and_preservation/docs/St-Petersburg-Register-of-Historic-Places.pdf
To find out more about the process for creating local historic districts, go to:
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