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Sunday, Oct 14, 2018
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Wall legend lives on as historic home turns 100

TAMPA — Much about the life and death of underworld kingpin Charlie Wall remains shrouded in mystery.

So why should his house, an Ybor City showpiece in its day, be any different?

The Hillsborough County property appraiser lists the date of construction as 1923, making the house 90 years old. But a review of other documents, including newspaper clippings and city directories, shows references to the 2,950-square-foot Sears Craftsman-style mansion as early as 1913.

If that’s the case, this landmark — designed by the same architectural team responsible for Old Tampa City Hall, Centro Asturiano, the Cuban Club, the Ritz Theater and the Tampa Yacht Club — turns 100 this year.

That’s a revelation to Tampa historians, as is the article from the Tampa Morning Tribune on May 10, 1923, noting that the home was designed by M. Leo Elliott and B. C. Bonfoey.

“Learning that alone is big news,” said Del Acosta, an architectural historian. “Leo Elliott is one of the best this city has ever seen.”

A man of Wall’s influence in Tampa might be expected to hire its top architects.

Wall was reputed to control the city’s illegal rackets for decades beginning in the early 1900s, fixing city, county and state elections along the way before his still-unsolved 1955 murder in the house at 1219 17th Ave.

According to the 1913 Tampa City Directory, Wall was living then at 1602 ½ Seventh Ave. Then the 1914 directory lists him as living in the new mansion, indicating he moved before its publication.

A social note published in the Tampa Morning Tribune on May 25, 1913, says construction of the Wall home was being rushed in anticipation of a busy rainy season.

Historian Acosta said official county records dating back that far are not always accurate; the property appraiser’s 1923 date could be the year an addition was built.

In fact, it might have been Wall’s bedroom, where his body was found.

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Original architectural designs that would settle the question have not been located, but the bedroom juts out conspicuously from an otherwise symmetrical structure.

“That room in the back of the home looks like an add-on when you see it,” said Scott Deitche, who profiled Wall in his book “Cigar City Mafia” and has toured the home. “I don’t think the hallway floor and the room’s floor line up properly any more. Age seems to have exposed it as an addition.”

The room is at the center of another mystery surrounding the house: that Wall built a steel passageway for safety, connecting the bedroom and the garage.

It is true that in June 1930, Wall was fired upon by would-be assassins as he stepped from his car in the driveway. Two bullet holes — one on the second step leading to the front porch and another in the front window — are still visible. He escaped with a flesh wound on his shoulder.

“That is when people believe he built his tunnel for precaution,” said Ace Atkins, who received a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2000 as a reporter for the Tribune for a series of articles about Wall’s unsolved 1955 murder.

Atkins later wrote “The White Shadow,” a fictional account of the investigation of Wall’s murder.

Adding to the speculation: The bedroom has an exterior door, and it lines up directly with a spot some 10 yards away where cars still are parked on the property.

The construction of Interstate 4 divided Ybor City, and the Wall house is north of the highway. The current owner and occupant is Sharon Baker. Her grandmother, Alberta Williams, bought it in 1962. Baker knows of no passageway.

“We may never know,” Atkins said with a chuckle. “Typical Charlie to leave a mystery all these years later.”

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Following Wall’s murder, the home remained vacant for two years.

“No one wanted to move into it,” Atkins said. “Remember, this was a brutal murder.”

Wall’s head was caved in with a baseball bat ,and his neck was sliced from ear to ear.

According to the 1957 Tampa City Directory, Fernando Gil moved into the home that year. He lived there with his wife Elvira for five years before selling it to Baker’s grandmother.

“Perhaps he tore down the tunnel,” Atkins said.

If so, it’s one of few alterations.

A century later, most of the original architecture remains intact, including a concrete hitching post for horses on the front sidewalk and the original spiked iron fence and gate.

“Over the years, we put vinyl siding up, but that’s it,” Baker said. “This house is beautiful. I wouldn’t want to change a thing.”

It might prove difficult to make changes anyway with the city of Tampa’s move in May to expand the Ybor City Historic District from Columbus Drive to 21st Avenue, encompassing the Wall home. This means changes to the exterior require permission from the Barrio Latino Commission.

“That particular structure was a reason why we were very excited about expanding the district,” said Dennis Fernandez, architectural review and historic preservation manager for Tampa. “That structure on its own is important to our history.”

Atkins was happy to learn the home is now protected.

“It’s just a fascinating home that should be celebrated for its importance to this city’s history.

“I can’t imagine the types of visitors to that house, from 1913 through Prohibition all the way up to 1955.

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