TAMPA- Time is running out for the Jackson House. For its owner, Willie Robinson Jr., there have been sleepless nights and hours sitting on the porch in his mother's favorite "pondering" chair. "I know it's going to take a miracle," Robinson said. But there have been no easy answers on how to repair and restore his family's 112-year-old rooming house. It is a legacy of Tampa's once-thriving black business district, and during segregation was one of the few places blacks could find lodging. Famous visitors included Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Count Basie and James Brown.
The wood-frame house, at 851 E. Zack St., is on the National Registry of Historic Places, the Florida Black Heritage Trail and is a local historical landmark. That might not be enough to save it. On Wednesday an official working with the city's code enforcement board set a 60-day deadline for minimal repairs to be done. "There's got to be progress," said Special Magistrate Alex Dunmire. "We don't want someone to get hurt." Robinson could face daily fines. For nearly seven years he has struggled to find money and resources to preserve the house. His wish is for it to become a home for veterans. Estimates by Bracken Engineering firm two years ago put restoration costs at about $1 million. Code enforcement officers said the house is in danger of collapsing and needs to be stabilized. They pushed for a 30-day deadline. "That's how serious it's become," said Kevin Amos, district supervisor with the city's code enforcement department. Code enforcement officials and the board have monitored conditions at the house since a hearing in 2010. The roof has gaping holes that allow rain to pour inside the house. Windows, door frames, the porch and a chimney also are in disrepair. Outside walls need painting, and aluminum siding must be removed to meet guidelines for historical structures. Volunteers occasionally have helped clear away debris and make minor repairs at the house. Robinson said the key to securing grants and holding fund-raising events is a proposed charitable foundation. In October he spoke with an attorney about the matter. An application was filed in May but Robinson doesn't anticipate approval for four to six months. That is too late to address the city's mandate for immediate repairs, though Robinson said there is an eight-member foundation board ready to put plans into action. "I'm not bitter. I'm not angry," he said. "I know time is my enemy." Matthew Depin, project engineer with Bracken, and Robinson are looking into covering the roof with a waterproof tarp and shoring up beams in the attic before the deadline. City officials also have tried to help. "We're still trying to find something that would be a good fit for him," said Dennis Fernandez, the city's historic preservation manager. But most grants require matching funds, he said. "It's a very difficult situation," Fernandez said. "We're trying to balance the historical importance of the building with issues of health, safety and welfare." And historical designation won't keep the house from collapsing. "Hopefully there is a benefactor out there," Fernandez said. Robinson said the Jackson House might date back as far as 1865 when freed slaves settled in an area north of downtown, known as "The Scrub." County records show the house was built in 1901. It was part of a vibrant black business and entertainment district that was destroyed by highway widening projects in the late 1960s. Once dozens of shops and trade services populated Zack Street. They have been torn down leaving the Jackson House as an outpost surrounded by county parking lots. The whites-only Union Depot Hotel, across from the Jackson House, was torn down three years ago. Robinson delights in the visitors that stop by the Jackson House. A family from The Netherlands, who knew of the house from the Internet, came by two years ago. Local historian Fred Hearns brings his tour groups to the house. Black Shriners and students from the University of South Florida have made field trips there. "This building has huge significance to the city of Tampa," said Dunmire. He recalled the loss of the 95-year-old Gary Adult High School about five years ago. It also was cited repeatedly for code violations and then suddenly caved in. The entire building had to be torn down. A neighbor who was an administrator at the school will "tell you we basically let the building fail," Dunmire said. Robinson's maternal grandmother, Sarah Jackson, was the original owner of the 24-room Jackson House. Jackson also operated the Jackson Cab Co., Tampa's only black-owned taxi service in the 1930s. Robinson's mother, Sarah Robinson, inherited the rooming house, operating it for more than 50 years until her death in 2006 at age 89. Willie Robinson Jr. returned home from Texas in the last year of his mother's life. He feels the burden of holding on to a legacy for his family and for Tampa. It has been discouraging at times, he said, especially now. "Things that were said (at the hearing) were hurtful but truthful," Robinson said. "I feel like I'm letting them down, all the people that tried, who worked so hard to provide for their children and their children's children." firstname.lastname@example.org (813) 259-7652