Something to Reflect: The Birth of Historic Preservation in St. Pete
The story of the preservation of our city’s historic 1920s-era Vinoy Park Hotel is well documented. Not so well known is how preservation of the Vinoy led to the preservation of many other historic places throughout the city and continues to do so.
In 1945 the Vinoy Hotel was acquired from its founder Amyer Vinoy Laughner by hotelier Charles Alberding of Chicago. Maintenance of the hotel had deteriorated over the years, and Alberding tried to bring it back to its former glory without success. Beginning in 1972, Alberding began leasing the hotel to interested investors. In 1984 a partnership composed of B. B. Anderson, Craig McLaughlin, Bert Stevens, and Fred Guest acquired the lease on the hotel and set about its restoration.
The partnership determined that, in order to make the Vinoy a success, they needed boat slips in the North Yacht Basin and city-owned land adjacent to 7th Avenue for tennis courts, including most of Baywood Park. Baywood Park was a small space that included a shallow Indian mound adjacent to the Vinoy. Anderson proposed to exchange what is now Vinoy Park for Baywood.
Baywood was commonly considered at the time to be part of the waterfront parks, with special protection under the city charter. This included the need for a public referendum on any sale or long-term lease of waterfront parkland. In its zeal to accommodate the Vinoy development, city council contemplated an ordinance that would effectively redefine Baywood as not a waterfront park and thus avoid a referendum. The city’s reasoning was that Bayshore Drive separated Baywood Park from the bay.
The first step in accomplishing this was to file a clear title action with the court. Due to discrepancies in old deeds, the city was unable to get title insurance for the Baywood property to make way for the property exchange. Consequently, in January 1984 the city filed the clear title action to assure none of the nearby 450 Northshore residents had any claim to the land. More significantly, this legal action also asked the court to give the city absolute discretion on using the land and that the land not revert to prior owners were it to cease to be a public park.
Two city not-for-profit preservation organizations objected to the proposed transfer of parts of Baywood Park to the Vinoy partnership without public approval through a referendum. The two organizations were Booker Creek Preservation, Inc. and Saint Petersburg Preservation, Inc. (now known as Preserve the ‘Burg). Peter Belmont was a founding member of Booker Creek Preservation, which was created when he was a law school student living in Roser Park, a part of the Booker Creek area. Booker Creek Preservation’s mission was to preserve the historic character of the Roser Park/Booker Creek area. Their work ultimately saved many historic homes and led to the designation of Roser Park as the city’s first local historic district.
Saint Petersburg Preservation was founded in 1977 to conserve important natural, scenic, historic, and architectural sites and structures. Howard F. Hansen was among the founding members of the organization and traces his family roots in Florida back to the 1850s. His grandfather worked for H. Walter Fuller, an early city developer and operator of a steamship line and electric power franchise. Hansen graduated from Tulane University where his studies included archaeology. Hansen is likely the city’s first professional preservationist and was a colleague of Belmont. He also played a significant role in obtaining the city’s Historic Preservation Ordinance.
As Hansen remembers, he and Belmont were closely following the land transactions centered on the Vinoy restoration efforts, and they became concerned about the process and the precedent it might set for other downtown waterfront parks. Belmont, on behalf of Booker Creek Preservation, filed a motion to intervene in the city’s clear title action challenging the request to grant absolute discretion on how Baywood Park would be used, and its intent to transfer Baywood to Anderson without a referendum. Belmont contended that Baywood was a waterfront park protected by the city charter, which required a referendum on the sale of waterfront park property. He noted that the city’s argument that Baywood was not a waterfront park because it was separated from the bay by a road could apply to other waterfront parks such as North and South Straub Park, which are also separated by Bayshore Drive. The city’s objections to the Booker Creek filing were rejected in April by Circuit Judge Mark R. McGarry, allowing Booker Creek to become party to the lawsuit.
Despite the pending legal dispute that April, city leaders from all sectors took time out to celebrate the hoped-for Vinoy restoration. In an event sponsored by Saint Petersburg Preservation and the Chamber of Commerce, 350 people gathered at the Yacht Club. Mayor Corinne Freeman read a proclamation declaring 1984 the “Year of the Vinoy.” Belmont, who also attended, declared, “I think it will be an exciting year when it opens.” The event made the point that the pending dispute was not really about the Vinoy but the issue of defining a downtown waterfront park and how best to protect the city’s public greenspaces.
The litigation proceeded and a hearing was set for August 21 for the court to consider the city’s claim that it was entitled to prevail in the lawsuit. In mid August Anderson stated that he could not get long-term financing for the project while the legal actions were pending. He said he wanted to reopen the Vinoy in December 1984, but now did not expect to open until the fall of 1985. Nevertheless, on August 14, he was quoted in the St. Petersburg Times declaring that he had not “even given a thought” to abandoning the Vinoy. “We don’t give up very easy.” Three days later he reversed himself and said he was “closing down” the project and proceeded to remove windows that had just been installed.
Meanwhile, negotiations were underway between Booker Creek and the city seeking to settle the lawsuit out of court. Belmont stated that Booker Creek had tentatively considered dropping its opposition to the Baywood Park swap in return for an agreement that sharply cut back the number of boat slips in the proposed Vinoy marina and required a hearing and referendum for the sale of any future parkland (not just waterfront parkland). Anderson was seeking a 92-slip marina. Belmont and the preservationists were concerned that a marina that big would block views of the bay from Bayshore Drive and clutter up the North Yacht Basin.
The Times opined in an editorial, entitled “A compromise is in everyone’s interest,” that they hoped negotiations would be successful. They stated the compromise suggested by Belmont was reasonable and would remove a major roadblock to Anderson’s plans. It was especially noted that extending the requirement of a referendum for the sale or long-term lease of downtown waterfront parkland to all parkland “would be good policy.”
On August 21 the Times issued another editorial, entitled “Settle the Vinoy dispute,” imploring council to make a clear declaration that they would support a referendum requirement for the sale of any parkland. The editorial concluded, “Restoration of the lovely old hotel appears to be hanging by a slender thread. It would be a great disservice to the community and to St. Petersburg’s future if this project fails because of differences that could be resolved through good-faith efforts by the city, the preservation groups, and the developer. To abandon the Vinoy once again to the ravages of time and weather would only blight the very waterfront that the preservation groups seek to protect.”
Later that day the long-awaited hearing on the city’s motion for summary judgment was heard. Belmont, along with his friend and environmental attorney, Thomas Reese, appeared on behalf of the preservation groups. Judge McGarry denied the city’s motion asking themselves to be declared as the lawsuit’s prevailing party, leaving the case’s trial scheduled for the following week. He stated, “It is no stretch of the imagination for the court to imagine Baywood Park as waterfront property.” He then surprised Belmont by asking if he desired to make a motion for the court to dismiss the city’s arguments. With Reese kicking him under the table to do so, Belmont instead told the judge no, believing that the city would finally recognize the need to seriously negotiate with the preservation groups. The Times reported that “McGarry’s ruling stunned city officials.”
The negotiations started quickly. As Hansen remembers, Belmont and city officials happened to take the same elevator after the hearing. During the ride down the city officials sought to “cut a deal” and asked Belmont what it would take to drop the Booker Creek objections to the sought-after land swap without a referendum. Three days later Booker Creek and the city met for four hours to try to resolve the dispute out of court. Talks continued the following day and totaled 13 hours in all. The mayor and city manager were present. City council members were shuttled into the talks one at a time to comply with Sunshine Laws that prohibited them from discussing the matter jointly prior to final council approval.
Participating in the talks with the preservation groups was former Mayor Charles Schuh who had recently led a successful effort to defeat a city proposal for revamping the Pier, known as Pier Park. Schuh had spent much of his career advocating for protecting and adding to the city’s parklands. In the Vinoy case he represented a grassroots group known as Preserve Our Waterfront, Inc. It was Schuh who developed a framework for settling the dispute that was ultimately agreed upon by all parties. Terms of the settlement included withdrawal of the Booker Creek suit; a referendum on the Baywood/Vinoy Park land swap; reduction of the size of the proposed Vinoy marina to 74 slips; and a referendum to amend the city charter to provide that public approval be obtained for the sale or long-term lease of any city park (in addition to the waterfront parks). The referenda called for in the agreement subsequently received overwhelming public approval. However, not given much media attention at the time was an additional agreement by the city to enact stronger measures for protecting historic resources. This later element lead directly to the city’s Historic Preservation Ordinance. Specifically, the city agreed “to adopt an ordinance protecting from demolition, destruction or significant alteration structures on or eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places and provide a mechanism for structures not on or eligible for inclusion on the National Register but of local historic significance to be equally protected.”
Hansen recalls, “A committee of city staff and interested parties was assembled to develop the ordinance.” At his recommendation, Frank Gilbert of the National Trust for Historic Preservation was enlisted to work with Jan Norsoph, director of the city’s Urban Design and Development Division, to help draft the ordinance. Prior to his association with the National Trust, Gilbert was executive director of the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission who successfully advocated for the preservation of many of New York’s historic sites. The ordinance was finally adopted by city council on September 26, 1985.
Gilbert said of his time in St. Petersburg, “One of my most vivid memories will be the image of the Snell Arcade reflected in the mirror glass of the building across the street. In cities that have lost their older buildings the glass buildings really have nothing to reflect.” The first three buildings to be protected under the new Historic Preservation Ordinance were the Vinoy Hotel, the open-air post office, and city co-founder John C. Williams’ house, now located at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg. There are presently over 130 buildings and archaeological sites designated as local landmarks receiving protection under the ordinance.
The city’s Historic Preservation Ordinance was not the first effort to preserve the city’s historic buildings and places, however. In 1981, the city completed and published a survey of nearly 600 structures, of which 350 were considered potentially worthy of being listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A number of buildings were designated on the National Register and the city had an ordinance providing some special protection for these. There were also ordinances to protect the city’s historic hex blocks and brick streets.
However, the Historic Preservation Ordinance provides much greater protection to historic places than does National Register designation. Significant exterior changes to a city-designated historic landmark building may not be made without prior city approval, which is not the case for National Register properties. Also, landmarks may not be demolished unless specific criteria are satisfied, and reuse of historic structures is encouraged. The ordinance also provided for the establishment of a City Historic Preservation Commission with significant powers, which is now part of the Community Planning and Preservation Commission.
When recently interviewed for this article, Peter Belmont reflected, “The city must have viewed themselves as incredibly unlucky. After all, what should have been a simple clear title action became anything but when a community-minded judge and individuals banded together for a public rather than a private interest, and all spoke up. Judge McGarry’s actions and a clear vision by the preservation groups about how to proceed resulted in significant new protections for both city parkland and the city’s array of historic resources. With 35-plus years having elapsed, I still view the matter as a once-in-a-lifetime experience and one that has stood the test of time for sound public policy helping to keep St. Petersburg special.”
Will Michaels is the author of The Making of St. Petersburg and The Hidden History of St. Petersburg. He is a member of the City Planning and Preservation Commission. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.