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Options for saving old house fall short

A developer tried selling, moving or donating his grandparents' 1924 colonial home to save it from the wrecking ball, but to no avail.

By MICHAEL CANNING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 19, 2002

Byron Gibbs Wilson Jr. stood Monday behind his childhood home, the adjoining offices where his parents worked for decades, and the former home of his grandparents next door.

Starting sometime next week, he will have it all torn down.

"It really hasn't sunk in," said the soft-spoken, third generation Tampa resident.

Wilson once roamed these properties on South MacDill Avenue between Estrella and Sitios as chief mischief maker. As a grown man, he would play the role of business and property owner.

Now at age 49, his ancestors passed away, he wears the redeveloper's hat. A three-story professional office building will rise on this spot, slated for completion by spring.

Three buildings have to come down to make way: The Palma Ceia Professional Building (formerly Palma Ceia Medical Clinic) at 3012 Estrella St.; the art moderne house and adjoining office complex on Estrella and MacDill that Wilson's parents built in 1949 to house both their family and their medical and dental practices; and a grand, two-story 1924 colonial foursquare house next door at 1704 S MacDill Ave.

The old foursquare was the final home of Wilson's grandparents. It's where family caregivers lived, and where Wilson himself lived in the late '70s and early '80s while he renovated the house. He rented portions as office space, but claimed most of it for the business he started in 1983, Alpha-Omega Title Insurance.

Alpha-Omega remained there until June 25, when it moved to temporary offices at 2907 W Bay to Bay Blvd. Progress called.

Wilson thought he could pull it off -- redevelop the properties, yet save the oldest and most architecturally significant structure, perhaps erect a new building around the old foursquare.

He and Jim Burt II, president of project developer Capstone Group, explored a variety of configurations with architects. Nothing worked. The house had to go.

Wilson decided to sell it. New owners could move it.

But he learned that the house was hemmed in.

Wilson estimates its height at 35 feet, including foundations. Loaded on a trailer, it would likely be higher. Low oak tree canopies span many South Tampa streets. A Lee Roy Selmon Expressway overpass blocks a southerly escape on MacDill.

"I tried for more than a year to move the building," he said.

He offered to donate the house to the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club, he said. The club wouldn't take it.

Wilson says he's out of options.

"Every possibility that I explored just completely came up empty," he said. "I am tremendously disappointed that I couldn't find a place for it. I'll be very sad to see it go down."

The house's remaining fixtures, furnishings and trim work are being donated to Habitat for Humanity.

He reminisced as he walked through the old house and the low-slung 1949 building next door.

Wilson used to climb on the roof and toss water balloons at passing cars.

There was the time, at age 4, when he set a sofa on fire, demonstrating the wonders of matches to his younger sister. "First thing my dad did, rather than put out the fire, was spank my behind," he recalled.

He used to listen through a wall, as adults conducted business.

His mother, Frances, was an ophthalmologist. His father, Byron Sr., was a dentist.

The towering grandfather oak that aged with them will be spared.

In front of it the new office building will rise, yielding nearly 30,000 square feet of space, already claimed, according to Burt.

Burt wouldn't name tenants. He said they included family investment, estate and tax planning firms.

"It'll be a small, close-knit family of office tenant-investors, many of them from prominent South Tampa families," he said.

His Capstone Group will move in, as will Wilson's Alpha-Omega Title. Wilson said his office will be about 20 feet above where he grew up, with a view of the country club that he and his parents enjoyed for decades.

The building's architect, Ralph Schuler, says its design was influenced by some of Tampa's famous turn-of-the-century public buildings, including Union Station, Wilson and Gorrie schools and the old federal courthouse.

"There's a tradition here of old civic buildings being made from brick," said Schuler, "and we wanted to acknowledge that."

The building will have wood window frames, rare for modern commercial structures.

Come demolition day, when the bulldozer takes its first metallic bite into his memories, Wilson expects to watch.

He admits it's likely to be painful.

"But it could be good for me," he said. "I think there's something to be said for feeling the joy and sorrows of your past. It's a healthy thing to see where you've been, and where you're going."

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