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Thanks to memories, building saved from wrecking ball

Preservationists moved to rescue the Better Boys Club's long-unoccupied former home.

By KATHERINE GAZELLA

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 28, 2000


TARPON SPRINGS -- The rickety old building was all set to be knocked down, and it was easy to see why.

The building was marred by termite damage and years of neglect, long abandoned by everyone except the occasional passerby who would leave behind a beer bottle. It had demolition written all over it -- literally. "Demo" was painted on one outside wall in bright orange letters.

But shortly before the scheduled demolition, some people who knew the building's past jumped in to save it.

It turns out that the building's history dates to about 1915 when it housed a school for black children.

Years later it became the meeting place for boys who weren't allowed in organizations such as the Boys Club because of their race. Samuel Archie and some other men started a new club for those children, probably in the early 1960s, though no one is sure of the date. The Better Boys Club, they called it.

"Building boys is better than mending men" was their motto.

Historical preservationists learned about the importance of the building, and they found a way to save it. The building will be moved to Heritage Village in Largo, where workers will restore it and use it as an exhibition hall.

"This is perfect. It fits the time period, it's a nice size, it gives us some exhibit area," said Ken Ford, director of Heritage Village. "It was destiny, that that little place got saved through all those years."

People who belonged to the Better Boys Club said they're happy the building will be saved. Harry Singletary, who served as Florida's corrections secretary from 1991 through 1998, said the club was a key part of his childhood and helped make him successful later in life.

He said the adults at the club made a difference in the lives of children and taught them to be responsible.

"We need symbols," he said. "And that is a symbol of a time when people cared."

Samuel Archie realized back then that the boys in town needed something to do after school. If they didn't have an organized activity, they would become bored and some would turn to crime, he decided.

So he formed the Better Boys Club, which quickly became a popular gathering place in the Union Academy neighborhood.

Members recall painting, drawing and playing horseshoes at the club. They also raised money through teas, fish fries and the sale of stickers.

The club's most important activities, Singletary said, were the ones that focused on making children more responsible. Older siblings were taught to be responsible for younger children, and everyone was taught to be responsible for other people in the neighborhood.

"We had a lot of time on our hands, and we had to learn ways to use that time productively," Singletary said. "It was a way to get kids ready to live in the world."

Elizabeth Archie, wife of Samuel Archie and mother of City Commissioner David Archie, said former club members still remember the impact the club had on their lives. Even now, years after the Better Boys Club ceased to exist, former members often stop by to see her husband.

They often say things like, "Mr. Archie is the one that kept us out of trouble," Mrs. Archie said. "They've become really outstanding citizens."

Samuel Archie, 85, had eye surgery last week and could not be interviewed for this story, Mrs. Archie said.

She said the club is one of his proudest achievements. The boys in the Union Academy neighborhood came to think of it as a second home, she said.

"It was beautiful," she said.

People at the city's Historical Society are trying to research the history of the building. They think it was built about 1915 and was the first site of the Union Academy school. The Better Boys Club met there in the 1960s and 1970s, said Phyllis Kolianos, manager of the Historical Society.

She said the Historical Society will interview people in the community to learn more about the history of the building.

Other than this building, she said, "So little of the black history has been preserved in Tarpon Springs."

A story that ran in the St. Petersburg Times in 1968 said the club had about 85 members, ranging in age from 8 to 18. They paid dues of 10 cents a week, but no boy was turned away if he couldn't pay, according to the story.

The story said the building was purchased from the Pinellas County School Board for $50 and moved to a lot at Grosse Avenue and Morgan Street, where it now sits, awaiting its move to Heritage Village.

The building recently was on the city's demolition list because it was in poor condition and had been unoccupied for years. A couple of weeks ago, Mrs. Archie contacted the police department and said she wanted something from inside the building.

She and police Officer Ed Hayden went inside the old building and retrieved the X-ray equipment that once belonged to a black doctor who lived in Tarpon Springs. Mrs. Archie then spoke with members of the Historical Society about preserving the building, and a member of the group contacted Ken Ford at Heritage Village.

As soon as Ford heard about the building, he knew it might be something special.

"I jumped right in the van," he said. He saw the building, had the demolition order stopped and worked out the financing for the $8,500 it will cost to move the building.

Restoring the building will take at least a year and a half, he said. After that, visitors to Heritage Village will be able to go inside and see exhibits about the building's history.

David Archie, who was a member of the Better Boys Club, said he is happy the building will be preserved and that future generations will learn about the school and the club.

"It's going to have some benefit down the line, as to telling people how things used to be," he said.

Singletary said he will always remember the club as an important part of his childhood. He learned how to respect other people, how to speak in public and other important life skills. And he always knew he had a place to go.

"It was a haven," he said.

-- News research assistant Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

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