Except as an inspiration, noted hotel looks doomed

Leaders look to create a historic core around buildings they might not be able to save.

By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer
Published August 30, 2007

The future of most historic structures in downtown looks grim, but some city leaders are talking about rebuilding the district to recapture the ambience of yesteryear.

After touring a historic property owned by the city near West Bay Drive and Seminole Boulevard over the weekend, several city leaders agreed it would be too expensive to save the 99-year-old Largo Hotel and a 120-plus-year-old home attached to it.

But at the site where Largo reportedly got its name, they mused about guiding new development in a style modeled on Largo's heyday. And they discussed the idea of rebuilding replicas of historical structures that can't be saved.

It could cost $2-million to move and renovate the Largo Hotel, City Manager Norton "Mac" Craig told the group of about 18 people, which included city leaders, staff and Largo Area Historical Society members who toured the structure Saturday. By contrast, it would cost $29,400 to demolish the hotel and remove asbestos.

"I hate to see it go," city Commissioner Andy Guyette said after the tour. "But I fully understand what they're saying."

Vice Mayor Harriet Crozier also said the buildings should go. But both said the city should find a way to recognize the historic significance of the area.

"We should make it a historic district," Crozier said.

Earlier this month, city leaders talked about saving historic structures and forming a committee to preserve what's left of Largo's history. They plan to discuss historic preservation at a workshop in October.

Largo Area Historical Society president Elmer Williams and former society president Bob Delack said they wished the structures could be saved but understood the costs to do so were prohibitive.

They were just grateful that city leaders were finally willing to take steps to recognize the district.

"That's definitely a move forward," Williams said. "If they build new things in the old style, we can accomplish part of our goal."

The hotel, known as the Hotel Largo, was built in 1908 by F.M. Campbell, the owner of Largo's original feed store. Today it consists of three buildings.

The former Rufus McMullen family home, built years earlier, was attached to the back of the hotel with yet another structure. Historians credit McMullen with naming Largo.

Just south of the property sits the privately owned Johnson Building, also known as the Pinellas Hotel. Built in 1911, it's the city's only site on the National Register of Historic Places.

Decades ago, the hotel was in the hub of downtown. It sat just west of the city's old train depot. On the south end of the property, there was an old camphor tree, where city officials used to meet.

In recent years, the building served as a rooming house until the city purchased it a year ago for $775,000. The city hopes to market the site to a developer.

Outside, the charisma of the historic hotel is still visible. But inside, much of the historic charm is covered with plaster, vinyl and neglect.

The city provided the tour group with masks to prevent inhalation of dust and mold. Without the masks, a faint odor of stale smoke lingered in the air.

After a quick glimpse of the former manager's quarters on the bottom floor, the group was led up the stairs. White bird feathers lined the steps leading to several efficiency-style rooms, some of which were blocked with yellow caution tape. Vinyl sheeting in various colors covered the floor of each tiny room. Some rooms had holes in the walls, where a contractor took samples to test for asbestos, said Charles R. Jordan, the city's public works management analyst.

After leaving the front of the hotel, the group went into a door on the south side of the structure, which led to the former Rufus McMullen House.

Inside there was a small room with brown carpeting and wood paneling on the walls. Adjoining the room was a small kitchen with boarded windows.

Delack, who also toured the hotel a few months ago, said the place appeared more dilapidated than when he was there then.

While the structure likely won't be preserved, the Historical Society is requesting that the city save the columns that adorn the front of the building, the Largo Hotel sign and the banister inside.

With or without the historic hotel and Rufus McMullen House, Delack said he would like to see the area become a historic district because that's where Largo began.

"If you're going to have a historic district in Largo," he said, "this is the only place you should have one."

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