Architect M. Leo Elliott made his mark in early 1900s Tampa, designing some of the area's most recognizable buildings. Most of them still stand, including Tampa City Hall, which was completed in 1915.
His lifetime of intricate drawings appeared lost to the ages until recently, when they were rediscovered — a gift from above.
For more than two decades, Elliott's extensive archives, stored in hundreds of tubes, were in the attic of a South Tampa engineering firm. They were found during repairs of the building's air-conditioning system.
Hand-drawn images of landmarks such as the Palace of Florence on Davis Islands, Ybor City's Centro Asturiano and Ritz Theatre, and a dozen more buildings are the subject of a free exhibit opening Friday at Tampa Regional Artists: "The Built, The Lost, The Dream: The Architecture of M. Leo Elliott."
Historian Rodney Kite-Powell said the drawings — well-preserved, despite lengthy storage in conditions far less than ideal — are a tremendous find.
"They do so much in helping understand the way our city was built," said Kite-Powell, curator at the Tampa Bay History Center, one of five local groups collaborating to present the monthlong exhibition.
"When we heard that these were available and going to come back to light, it was great news," he said. "They had been out of circulation and out most people's consciousness for 30 years."
The serendipitous recovery ended a long search by Lynn Elliott Rydene, one of the architect's three grandchildren still living in South Tampa. She was 15 when her grandfather died in 1967.
"I was afraid somebody had destroyed them or thrown them out, which is what was about to happen," she said, if not for people with a common interest in preservation and architecture.
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With a degree
in interior design, Rydene, a former architectural firm employee, gives presentations every summer at the local American Institute of Architects' program for high school students who are considering architectural careers.
Grant Rimbey, a Temple Terrace preservationist and project manager with Elements, a Tampa architectural firm, assists with the program that includes sharing Rydene's sole Elliott drawing, Ybor City's Cuban Club (1917).
"I was introduced years ago to Grant as a fan of my grandfather's work," and the two often discussed Elliott's missing archives. "I know they're out there. We need to find them," she often told Rimbey.
One day last year, Rimbey telephoned: "Guess what?"
Rydene was ecstatic. "It was wonderful," she said.
The remarkable find was facilitated by Carolyn Crakow, whose husband, Fred, is executive vice president and a 40-year employee of Carastro & Associates, the Hyde Park engineering firm where the drawings were discovered.
"When my husband came home from work one day, he started talking about these old drawings," she recalled. "I don't know anything about architecture, but I just know old means good."
A Temple Terrace resident and longtime friend of Rimbey's mother, Crakow was aware of Rimbey's interest in historic architecture.
"Don't get rid of anything. I'm going to touch base with Grant and with his mother," she told her husband. "It snowballed from there, which was quite exciting," she said.
Carastro donated the find to the Tampa Bay History Center for care and eventually to make the drawings accessible to the public.
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Hamilton Jones, whose company,
Gaspar Properties, renovated the Palace of Florence, wishes Elliott's original plans for the Davis Islands landmark had surfaced sooner.
"Obviously, it would have been a lot easier if we'd had the original drawings," said Jones, who recently saw Elliott's plans for the "apartment/hotel" modeled after the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, Italy. It was one of the first structures on Davis Islands, built in 1926 for $350,000.
Much of the original construction was missing when Jones' company bought the building in 1995.
"Basically, we had to go off Burgert Bros. photos, which were very helpful, but trying to figure out detailed information off a photo is tough," Jones said.
Kite-Powell and his staff still are examining the gift.
"We know we have over 500 tubes," each containing multiple drawings and projects, including some by architects of firms that succeeded Elliott's, he said.
Elliott helped design buildings for Virginia's 1907 Jamestown Exposition shortly before arriving in Tampa on his 21st birthday, April 4, 1907. He joined architect Bayard C. Bonfoey five months later. The partnership's earliest work includes the Tampa YMCA (1909), Centro Asturiano (1914) and Tampa City Hall (1915).
The plans for Tampa City Hall remain missing.
"People have been searching for that particular one off and on for years," Kite-Powell said. That is not to say the plans might not be in one of the unopened tubes of Elliott's work, he said.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: "The Built, The Lost, The Dream: The Architecture of M. Leo Elliott"
WHERE: Tampa Regional Artists, 705 Swann Ave., Tampa
WHEN: Opens noon to 3 p.m. Friday, 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday; thereafter, noon to 3 p.m. daily except Mondays, through July 8
INFORMATION: (813) 251-3780