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Everybody's Business

College to turn swing club into student dance studio

La Benefica building will house Hillsborough Community College's new dance program.

By MICHAEL CANNING, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 14, 2003


DANCING RETURNS TO LA BENEFICA: But the dancers won't be dolled up like Lindy hoppers and rockabilly greasers. Plain leotards and tights will be more the order.

The 1929 La Benefica building at the southeast corner of Palm Avenue and 15th Street in Ybor City was recently home to the Sugar Palm Club, a lavish swing club that lasted little more than a year before closing in April 1999.

Virtually surrounded for decades by Hillsborough Community College's Ybor City campus, the building was finally bought by the school in early 2001. Now it's being renovated to provide badly needed space for the college's new dance program on the second floor. The first floor will become a child-care center for students' children.

Emery Alford, HCC's dean of academic affairs, says the dance studio's facilities will be a cut above what is normally found at the junior college level. The suspended dance floor, once the centerpiece of the Sugar Palm's Grand Ballroom, will be rebuilt and soundproofed (to avoid disturbing nap time downstairs). New lighting and sound systems will make the space suitable for small recitals.

Offices, a classroom, dressing room and showers will also occupy the second floor.

The 6,000-square-foot child-care area is a continuation of the successful one at HCC's Dale Mabry campus. Along with providing low-cost day care for students, it will also provide a learning lab for the college's child-care management students. A small playground outside is also being added.

Emery said the building should be ready by the fall term beginning in August.

PICTURE THIS: Picture frames and gifts will replace tires and grease in the old auto repair shop at El Prado Boulevard and MacDill Avenue.

A. Preston "Chipper" Smith III says he plans to open the store and art gallery at 3501 S MacDill in the next few months. It will replace Import Auto Clinic, which closed in December after several years.

Smith, 52, ran Smith Brothers Framing on Dale Mabry Highway with his brother, Scott, until they recently parted ways. Now he plans to sell standard-sized picture frames, mirrors and gifts at his store, to be named A. Preston's Inc.

Smith began interior renovations last month and plans to create an art-deco look on the outside. Eventually, he hopes to set aside some space for displaying local artwork.

"It's going to be an evolving thing," he said.

In the meantime, he gave Larry's Plants the okay to sell orchids in the parking lot.

GANDY NOODLE HOUSE OPEN: The Noodle Lounge, a casual adjunct to B.T. Nguyen's snazzy Pan Asian one-two punch (Cafe B.T., SoHo's Yellow Door), has opened after months of delay.

Nguyen originally planned to open the restaurant at 3324 W Gandy Blvd. (next door to Cafe B.T.) in September. But the birth of her son, the post-Sept. 11 economy and her urge to keep tweaking the concept pushed the opening to March 4.

Inspired by the chic noodle houses in big cities up north and in London, the small restaurant is a study in simple elegance and cooling colors. The walls are egg wash and mint, the floor sage. Modern Italian chairs and tiny planters with flower chives garnish the tables. Photos of restaurant staff and family slurping up noodles cover the walls.

Fans of Nguyen's other two restaurants will recognize some items on the Noodle Lounge menu (green papaya salad, fresh squeezed limeade). Also recognizable are the signature noodle bowls -- including Thailand's pad Thai, Japan's udon and Vietnam's pho -- but with a lighter accent.

For now the Lounge is open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

ARTFUL LIVING: For years, residents and city leaders have been talking about what Tampa Heights, the city's oldest rebounding neighborhood, needs. Newcomer Erika Schneider has a concept of her own to add.

Art de vivre.

Art for living. Art you can use. No reason why your furniture, kitchen utensils or bathroom fixtures can't be artistic objects, Schneider says. She also believes there's no reason why people couldn't find such stuff in Tampa Heights, the sort of semiblighted urban area that is often reinvigorated by pioneering, artistic souls.

So she's giving a sneak preview of Bleu Acier -- her gallery, work space, and home -- Sunday as part of the Tampa Heights Civic Association's Eighth Annual Historic Tour of Homes. It's pronounced bloo ah-see-ay and means "blue steel."

Schneider, a master printer, and her husband, sculptor Dominique Schneider, arrived in Tampa in 1998. That was after Erika spent 25 years living in France, where she met her husband.

The couple bought the 1925 warehouse at 109 W Columbus Ave. in February 2002. After a year of renovations and help from the Tampa Economic Development Corporation, the 4,200-square-foot warehouse has been subdivided into a fabrication studio, print shop, showroom and two-bedroom apartment for the Schneiders and their 7-year-old daughter, Esther.

The Schneiders will make the art, jewelry and sculpture in the studio, and use the print shop for lithography and intaglio work. Erika says the print shop should be ready in April.

The showroom adjoins the Schneiders' living room, adapting the 19th-century French tradition of the salon gallery where the client peruses the artist's home.

-- Staff writer Susan Thurston contributed to this report. Do you know something that should be everybody's business? Call 226-3382, or e-mail citytimes@sptimes.com .

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