TAMPA — A few weeks ago there was a glimmer of hope that the historic Jackson House, a remnant of segregation-era Tampa, might be saved.
But that bright outlook is fading, and the 112-year-old rooming house could be headed for demolition.
“It’s not doable,” said Hillsborough County Tax Collector Doug Belden, one of a handful of people who recently stepped forward to champion its preservation. “It’s cost prohibitive. I’m an optimist but I’m also a realist.”
As an alternative, Belden is working with Alfonso Architects to build a scale replica of the house for display, possibly at the Tampa Bay History Center or at Encore, a $425 million development of apartments, shops, a hotel and a black history museum.
Up-to-date photographs of the house will help with the replica’s design.
Belden, businessman Marvin Knight and a coalition of civic activists last month launched the campaign to restore the rooming house and preserve its history.
City code enforcement officials have cited the house as a safety hazard, saying it could collapse at any time. An outside chimney in danger of tumbling down was removed in August. Barriers and tape keep people from walking too close to the house, which is surrounded by county parking lots.
In August, city officials gave owner Willie Robinson Jr. 30 days to at least shore up the building or face daily fines. Belden said the work could cost more than $50,000. Estimates for complete restoration have ranged from just under $1 million to $1.5 million.
“I’m still hoping and praying,” said Robinson. “It looks mighty bleak. Everything is uphill. The cost is astronomical. It seems as though every time I conquer a hurdle, I get five or six more put in front of me.”
The city has no immediate plan to pursue demolition. “Before we do anything we’ll have another conversation with Mr. Robinson and see if he has any ideas or solutions,” said Bob McDonaugh, the city’s economic opportunity administrator. But, he said, “One of our primary responsibilities is the safety of citizens.”
Robinson’s maternal grandmother, Sarah Jackson, was the original owner of the 24-room establishment which was built in 1901 at 851 Zack St. Jackson also operated the Jackson Cab Co., Tampa’s only black-owned taxi service in the 1930s.
Robinson’s mother, Sarah Robinson, inherited the Jackson House and operated it until her death in 2006 at age 89.
The house is on the National Register of Historic Places, the Florida Black Heritage Trail, and is a local historic landmark. During segregation it was one of few places where blacks could find lodging. Among its famous visitors were Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, James Brown and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Today the house is one of few buildings remaining from a neighborhood founded north of downtown by freed slaves after the Civil War. Homes, businesses, restaurants, and nightclubs sprang up in and around Central Avenue. The district, known as the Scrub, was all but wiped out in the 1960s and ‘70s by highway widening projects.
Current structural problems with the Jackson House are overwhelming, Belden said.
All of the wood contains lead. There is mildew and black mold. Gaping holes in the roof have let in rain that has caused extensive water damage. “There is nothing that can be saved in the house,” Belden said. “One good storm could knock it over. It’s sad, very sad.”
Robinson’s dream for the house was to restore it and open a home for veterans. But he said he doesn’t want anyone to put money into a project that can’t be accomplished, or for the house to be a safety concern.
It might be “the Jackson House was not meant to stand,” Robinson said.