Preserving USF St. Petersburg’s Historic Homes

(Oct. 15, 2019) – With all the shiny new buildings going up around campus, it can be easy to overlook the historical ones right next door. Tucked behind oak trees on 2nd Street South are two houses that are each well over 100 years old.

The John C. Williams House and C. Perry Snell House have been landmarks at USF St. Petersburg since they were moved to the campus from their original locations in the 1990s. Over the years, the buildings have served as event spaces and offices for university departments, such as History, Politics and Philosophy. They have even played stage for the St. Petersburg Shakespeare Festival. But as the Bard once wrote, “True is it that we have seen better days.”

Efforts are now underway to help restore and preserve these venerated buildings for future generations of students, faculty and staff through grants and protective statuses. A recent grant application submitted by USF St. Petersburg to the state of Florida could help fund a master plan to maintain the Williams House for years to come.

“These two houses are so critical to the history of St. Pete,” said Paul Palmer, Principal at Renker Eich Parks Architects, who has worked on past restoration of the buildings and helped with the recent grant proposal. “The Williams House is a Victorian-era building with Queen Anne treatments. It’s one of the earliest frame buildings built in the city. The Snell House is a Dutch Colonial Revival style with Queen Anne influences. They make a good pair and they’re both good examples of early St. Petersburg architecture.”

Built in 1891, the Williams House is one of the oldest surviving buildings in St. Petersburg. Featuring stained glass windows, a steep roof and an octagonal turret, the building was the home of General John C. Williams, a Civil War veteran and one of the co-founders of the city, who came to Florida in the mid 1870s and devoted his energy to bringing a railroad to Pinellas County.

Although the General only resided in the house for less than a year, dying in April 1892, his namesake building lived on. In 1906, the Manhattan Hotel Company purchased the Williams House and converted it to a lodging. The fifteen-room building boasted some of the finest furnishings of its time and was in use as a hotel for nearly ninety years at its original 444 5th Avenue South address.

The C. Perry Snell House was named after a prominent local developer, who also resided in the home. Built in 1904, the house featured electricity and a basement, both highly unusual in Florida at the time, as well as a gambrel roof, classical columns, bay windows and porch. Over time the house came under the ownership of Bay Plaza Co., who used it as offices while working on projects in downtown St. Petersburg.

In the 1990s, the fates of both houses and USF St. Petersburg intersected. The University was expanding and in need of new facilities. The owners of Williams and Snell houses were looking to donate them as their upkeep was proving too costly.

On the night of August 17, 1993, over 150 people—including many USF St. Petersburg employees—stayed up all night to watch movers lift up and haul the historic Snell House from its location at 106 2nd Avenue North to its current location on campus.

“It was an amazing, breathtaking experience to watch,” said Sudsy Tschiderer, Special Projects Manager at USF St. Petersburg, whose office is in the Snell House. She recalls how house movers prepped the site for days prior to moving the building, including dismantling the house from its basement, and remembers the cheers of the crowd as the house was finally placed in its new location.

Less than four years later, the Williams House received the same treatment, as it was lifted and moved three blocks on the night of March 29, 1997.

With the houses safely on campus, “the University became a trusted guardian of our community’s history,” Tschiderer said. “It’s so rewarding to see new students come into these houses for the first time and experience this other element of our beautiful campus.”

The university has elected to be a lifelong steward of these buildings, but upkeep can be costly for St. Petersburg’s historic homes. Recent repairs have included exterior flooring on the Williams House and a new roof and repaired stucco on the Snell House.

Which is why Dr. Michael Francis, Chair of History and Political Science, Dr. Susan Toler, Associate Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, and others have been hard at work trying to attain grant funding available for preserving historic properties. USF St. Petersburg recently submitted an application for a $50,000 grant, which, if approved, the University would match with another $50,000. A capital improvement grant of up to $500,000 could follow at a later date.

The Williams House is on the Florida and U.S. National Register of Historic Places. The Snell House is currently only recognized as historic by the state. In the future, the University plans to apply for national historic status for Snell House as well. Meanwhile, Palmer said the houses could be added as destinations to the St. Petersburg’s downtown historic district walking tour, including signage to communicate their significance to passing pedestrians.

USF St. Petersburg remains committed to the upkeep and preservation of the city’s history. In seeking and hopefully obtaining grant funding, the future of the University is one with a preserved and restored Williams and Snell House.

“USF St. Petersburg has done a great job as stewards of these homes,” said Palmer. “The steps the University has taken to secure a grant to do a master plan is the true commitment to keep the houses maintained for the long term.”