tampabay.com

Author's pen not mightier than wrecking ball

The old brick motel, a novel's setting, will fall for new buildings.

By BILL COATS
Published February 28, 2007


TAMPA - The place looked like a little village, wrote Connie May Fowler as she began to immortalize the Travelers Motel. Small red-brick cottages, shaded by oaks and nestled among azaleas, were scattered about what must have been a city block or more. The cottages had turquoise shutters with sailboat cutouts in the middle of each one.

Fowler had lived at the Travelers as a child. Eventually, she penned Before Women Had Wings, an acclaimed autobiographical novel about life there with her sister and their abusive mother. The novel led to an Emmy-winning TV movie starring Oprah Winfrey.

On Tuesday, Fowler made a eleventh-hour pitch to save the Travelers from demolition. But the Hillsborough County Historic Resources Review Board heeded the arguments of a developer, who said the decrepit tourist cottages on Nebraska Avenue cannot be used or saved.

"There is no economic viability for this," said Steve Gouldman, a planner representing property owner David Mead of Tri-Ban Development. "There's nothing significant architecturally about these buildings. Absolutely nothing."

Author Fowler, now a professor of creative writing at Rollins College in Winter Park, said she was saddened, but not surprised, by the decision.

After learning of the pending demolition from a Times reporter Tuesday morning, Fowler e-mailed a letter to the board. "I urge you to think creatively," she wrote. "I would be honored to help you find the ways and means to salvage some or all of the property."

The cottages were built in 1938 when Nebraska Avenue was a main artery into Tampa. But the Travelers lost its greatest source of travelers to the opening of Interstate 275, and had been declining since, Gouldman said.

Fowler's family moved into a small, bulbous trailer on the property. She attended Forest Hills Elementary School.

"The motor lodge had a pool, and I thought that was the coolest thing on the planet," she said.

The pool's outline is still evident but long ago was filled in and topped with sod.

Mead, who bought the property in July for $1.95-million, plans to build stores and offices along the Nebraska frontage and 34 two-story houses behind there. A few already are under contract and could be finished by late summer, he said. Others are being marketed for $214,000 and up.

Mead said the commercial buildings will have red brick and shutters reminiscent of the Travelers.

Bill Coats can be reached at 813 269-5309 or coats@sptimes.com.