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City looks back for its future

Historic buildings and a mass-transit hub could form a new district.

By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer
Published August 9, 2007


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photo
[Bill Serne | Times]
the city-owned Largo Hotel, at Seminole Boulevard and West Bay Drive, could be a centerpiece in a new historic district.

LARGO - The future of Largo may be rooted in its past.

City leaders spoke this week of forming a committee to explore saving what they can of Largo's architectural history and using its oldest, most noteworthy buildings to create a foundation for Largo's future.

"We don't work hard enough to preserve some of our history in the city and maybe we should give it a shot," said City Commissioner Gigi Arntzen.

A century ago, the corner of West Bay Drive and Seminole Boulevard was the hub of activity with a train depot, shops and the Largo Hotel.

Maybe the city could recapture some of that excitement by creating a district with historic buildings and a mass-transit station modeled after the depot, city leaders said.

Commissioners decided to form the committee after former city commissioner Charlie Harper, a member of the Largo Area Historical Society, made the suggestion at Tuesday night's city commission meeting.

The concept is refreshing to historical society president Elmer Williams.

Up until now, being the "City of Progress" meant "destroying anything that's more than 10 years old," Williams said.

Mayor Pat Gerard said she felt for a long time the city should have been working closer with the society.

"That sounds like a great idea," Gerard said. "Not that we have a lot of money, but at least we should have a plan."

A committee could likely be formed within a month or two, she said.

Money is one of biggest roadblocks in the preservation mix, Williams said.

"You kind of need an angel," he said. "Someone who has the money and would have interest in preservation and would come in and restore it."

Today, there just a handful of historic sites left in Largo.

They include the Largo Hotel, purchased by the city early last year for $775,000 with the thought of marketing the site and nearby parcels to a developer.

The hotel was built in 1908 by F.M. Campbell, the owner of Largo's original feed store. It's actually three connected structures: the former Rufus McMullen family home, which is attached to the back of the hotel with yet another structure.

Nearby, there's the privately owned Johnson Building, also known as the Pinellas Hotel. Built in 1911 by Louis Steele Johnson, it's the city's only site on the National Register of Historic Places.

Farther north, around the corner from Largo High, there's a three-story house that once belonged to Largo pioneer Charles Wharton Johnson, a sea captain who settled in the area in the early 1870s. Pinellas County school officials recently bought that property with plans to expand the high school.

The home's previous owner, Bronna McGill, said she wanted to preserve the house, but couldn't move it on her own and was unable to find someone who could afford to do so.

The committee would look at those sites and others, officials say.

Commissioner Gay Gentry, also a member of the historical society, had suggested preserving Largo's architectural history on several occasions, but for one reason or another the idea hadn't caught on before.

"We need to find a compromise between moving forward and holding onto the past," Gentry said.

Lorri Helfand can be reached at 445-4155 or lorri@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 8, 2007, 21:14:23]


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