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Wrecking ball looms over historic site

The state makes one last attempt to save a historic three-story brick schoolhouse near Ybor City.

By DAVID KARP, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 10, 2002

Before it destroys a school where generations of immigrants learned to read, the Florida Department of Transportation will try one more time to save it.

The state agency will spend six months advertising for an investor who would move or rehabilitate the historic George T. Washington Junior High School.

"There are a lot of memories in there," City Council chairman Charlie Miranda said at a meeting about the school. "There are a lot of feelings."

But there's also a lot of asbestos, lead and mounds of toxic pigeon poop in the three-story brick building.

That's why the School Board sold it two years ago to the state, which will need the land in 20 years to expand the interchange known as "Malfunction Junction," where I-275 and I-4 meet.

School officials haven't kept up the building, a Mediterranean Revival structure with wood floors, decorative brick work, metal cupolas and staircases with Mission-style wood railings.

The school -- in a neighborhood known as V.M. Ybor, north of Ybor City -- was once the life of Ybor. In its classrooms, the children of immigrants learned English. In its hallways, they made lifelong friends.

Rehabilitation could cost as much as $16-million.

School officials and other government agencies don't want to invest that kind of money in a building so near a critical highway junction. Even if someone restored the school, it would ultimately have to be torn down or moved.

"The department has no additional money," said Don Skelton, director of production and planning for the Department of Transportation's district office in Tampa.

The agency briefed the City Council last week on plans for the building.

"This is not something the DOT jumped into and decided we wanted to demolish," said Elaine Illes, a DOT consultant.

The state detailed the school's historic features in a report, accompanied by photographs, to preserve its memory.

Officials thought about moving the school, but movers could only take the three-story, 51,129-square-foot school one block or two -- at most.

The agency has already spent thousands to relocate other historic homes in Ybor City that the interstate will overtake, officials said.

City Council members urged officials to try to find a way to save the school.

Council member Linda Saul Sena reminded officials that they once wanted to tear down Gorrie Elementary in Hyde Park, saying no kids would move into the neighborhood. Today, Gorrie is filled with children.

But school officials said Gorrie was different. It wasn't a few feet from a major interstate.

City Council member Rose Ferlita acknowledged that the council didn't have any answers.

"We don't have the money either," she said.

-- Times Staff Writer David Karp can be reached at 226-3376 or

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