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Wednesday, May 23, 2018
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Mullins: Historic buildings find fresh new purpose

Some cities are known nationwide for architecture and historic buildings. Chicago, yes. New York, for sure. Tampa, maybe not so much.

So, fans of architecture like me have reason to fiercely celebrate and defend those structures here that retain a bit more history than a Publix-anchored strip mall. The University of Tampa, the old Federal Courthouse, Ybor City cigar factories. That kind of thing.

Now, two of the most colorful historic buildings in the city are going through major transformations, and you could easily walk past them without knowing. Purists may dispute the names I’m giving them, but let’s just call them 1) the remake of the Franklin building on Franklin Street, and 2) the remake of the Roosevelt 2.0 building in Ybor City. Each one is chock-full of stories about Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders, black-and-white movie theaters, urban juice bars, mead brewing bars and much more.

Let’s start with the Franklin, formally known as the Easley Building at 510 N. Franklin St. You might know it as the white, three-story brick building just down from the Tampa Theatre. Property records remain a bit murky, but built circa 1895, that building may rank as the second-oldest structure in downtown Tampa. I’m told the Hattrick’s tavern building ranks as oldest.

The Franklin likely started off as a boot and shoe store, then its different floors took turns as a train ticket station for The Atlantic Coast Line Railway (trains traveled right down Franklin Street back then), a lodging house, the Bank of Tampa headquarters, the black-and-white Grand Theater cinema, space for the Loyal Order of the Moose, the Business University of Tampa, the Adams-Magnon Jewelry Co., vacant hulk, and (gasp) a Burger King.

Skip forward many years and we meet Todd Lax and his business partner, Kevin Kenny. They’re serial entrepreneurs who have worked in everything from legal mediation to beach-side hotel development. A couple of years ago, they decided to get into the food/restaurant business with a simple idea: Create the Starbucks of fresh juices.

Juice bars are a white-hot trend I’ve written about recently, and lots of them are popping up around here — Swami Juice and Fruitwood Standup Market among them. Lax and Kenny took a year to refine the Urban Juice brand, settling on an old Ford pickup truck as the logo/ethos. They bought the Franklin for $425,000 in April of last year and put more than a million bucks into renovations. They’re now coming out of the “soft opening” phase and envision the building as a three-story urban lifestyle center — almost like the funkiest parts of Brooklyn compressed into one building here.

The first floor is the Urban Juice restaurant, built as a funky lounge for people to plop down onto a couch that looks like a sideways London telephone booth or a bench made from a Ford pickup tailgate. Over time, they plan to distribute fresh juices throughout the Tampa Bay area, and they’re well on their way. (The second floor gym is for a “swing” yoga room and TRX suspension space, so expect a few onlookers.)

Besides the Marriott Waterside, Tampa doesn’t have a downtown spa, which Lax considers a travesty, so they built an eight-room spa for massages and other fancy services. The crushed-velvet walls alone are worth the tour. The third floor is set up as the company HQ for now but will convert to a work space businesses can rent for meetings. Lax calls the huge arched window overlooking Franklin Street the “Ally McBeal” window, for people who remember that reference.

Walking through Urban Juice, I felt like I’d been transported into Atlanta’s Buckhead, D.C.’s Dupont Circle or Chicago’s Wicker Park — a place far funkier than Tampa has come to expect.

Urban Juices come in tons of varieties: The Roots with things like beets, The “Mylks” with things like cashew milk, and The Greens with leafy veggies. Compared to a Big Gulp at 7-Eleven, you’ll definitely need to take your wallet. Juices can run $8 or $9 apiece. Frankly though, they’re amazing, and Lax is also creating a kind of yogurt/espresso/juice combination that will knock your socks off. Look for all their juices to show up at gyms and clubs and funky grocers all over.

The second building on our tour is the Roosevelt 2.0 at 1812 N. 15th St. Perhaps this is more myth than fact, but whatevs, Teddy Roosevelt is one of the world’s great bad-asses, and here’s the story the new owners like to tell.

Back in the day, Teddy rode down Seventh Avenue and recruited tough guys from the bars for his invasion of Cuba. A bunch of his Rough Riders hung out at this tavern and, as was common then, people celebrated by firing a few shots in the air. Somebody fired up and through the ceiling and hit one of the female — um — “hostesses,” thus making her “the first casualty of the Spanish-American War.” Perhaps Florida has been a gun state longer than some people think.

I ran this story past Rodney Kite-Powell, curator at the Tampa Bay History Center. He didn’t find any corroborating evidence and said, “My guess is that’s probably a myth.” Also, he’s toured the building and says an 1890s-era pistol (probably a .45 caliber) shooting soft lead bullets probably wouldn’t penetrate the 2-inch-thick oak floor/ceiling, much less injure anyone upstairs. “Plus, the Tribune was pretty diligent in covering what the soldiers were doing at the time, and I would have thought that would make the paper.” He also doubts the story that Teddy rode his horse right into an Ybor City restaurant. To that I say, “Yeah, but we’re talking about TEDDY ROOSEVELT here. He once took a bullet in the chest and kept giving a speech! Chuck Norris is the Teddy of our time!”

Over time, the building became known as the Roosevelt, once housed Tampa Bay Brewing, and it has long had a colorful history. Now owned by Tampa strip club magnate Joe Redner, the building last housed a cooperative social commerce experiment called Roosevelt 2.0 selling organic veggies, local art and re-purposed homespun knick knacks.

If you needed an organic, conflict-free, hemp-woven shawl for your drum circle, that was your place. Alas, the venture didn’t prosper commercially (shocking, I know) and Redner cleared the way for his son’s new project, a cider and mead brew bar.

There’s no beverage in the world with more old-school street cred than mead. Mentioned prominently in “Beowulf,” mead might be the world’s first alcoholic beverage — way older than wine or beer.

Mead dates back thousands of years and might form the origin of the word “honeymoon.” The Oxford English Dictionary is less than definitive, but the story goes that when a guy and girl got engaged, the father of the bride would fill up a clay pot with water, honey and spices and then bury it underground for a year of “engagement.” Fermentation created alcohol, and since life ran on the lunar cycle, the brew only came out for the wedding party, and that post-wedding bliss was known as the “honey moon.” Get it?

Joey Redner plans to make both hard apple cider and mead on site. Amazingly, mead takes on the flavor of the season when the bees made the honey — blueberry one season, orange blossom another — and Joey plans to use all Florida ingredients if possible. They’re in the thick of renovations, so opening day might not be for several months. As a patron, get ready to invest a bit — at least compared to beer — as they’ll serve a wine glass-sized portion for about $8 apiece.

Come to think of it, that’s about the same price as an Urban Juice.

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