Manny Leto, Executive Director, Preserve the ‘Burg
A version of this article appeared in the November issue of the Northeast Journal.
In the 1960s, the Polish American Society of St. Petersburg, anchored in their clubhouse at 1343 Beach Dr. SE, welcomed Polish-American baseball players in town for Spring Training. Over on 13th Avenue South, the Melrose Clubhouse was home to the “Colored YMCA,” a meeting place for the first Black Boy Scout troop and the local NAACP.
Though their stories are very different - one a social club for immigrants who migrated south from the industrial Northeast during a post-WWII wave of Sunbelt relocations, the other created when places in the South were separate and definitely not equal – each reveals a chapter in the story of St. Petersburg.
In the six months since joining Preserve the ‘Burg as executive director, it’s stories like these that resonate. I have daily conversations with our enthusiastic board about zoning, land use ordinances, community character and neighborhood plans. I’ve been yelled at while attending City Council (it’s fine), attended neighborhood meetings, and met with elected officials, developers, and other nonprofit leaders.
With COVID on the wane, we’ve launched our 11th year of Movies in the Park, resumed our downtown walking tours of First Block and the Waterfront, and hosted historian Bruce Stephenson for a look at the development of Mirror Lake.
But I always come back to the stories.
In 1942 African American residents – specifically local civic activist Fannye A. Ponder – built a meeting hall. The Melrose Clubhouse served St. Pete’s Black residents during a time when just sitting on a bench in downtown could land you in jail. The clubhouse was a meeting place for Black women’s clubs, a recreation center for boy and girl scouts, a nursery for African American children in WWII, and a planning site for local chapters of the NAACP.
Shuttered in 1965, the Clubhouse was listed as a local landmark in 1993.
Today, Preserve the Burg is just one of several community groups working with Pinellas County Schools and the City of St. Petersburg to make sure this story – this place – is not erased. Plans to restore the property and make it accessible to the public are slowly progressing.
Over the summer, board member Emily Elwyn worked with the Polish American Society to research and file a landmark designation for the Society’s clubhouse. Constructed in 1956 on the city’s south waterfront, it was the first Polish American club in Florida. Situated among nondescript warehouses, the building is not an architectural wonder. If you drive too fast, you might miss it. There are no grand columns, no float glass windows, wrought iron balustrades, or iconic façade. But within its walls, there is a history that needs to be shared, a place that needs to be venerated. With the help of Preserve the ‘Burg, City Council voted unanimously to approve the club’s local landmark designation.
Preserve the Burg often weighs in on aesthetics: building heights, windows, and architectural details. We also have lots of data on the economics of historic preservation: That old homes and commercial buildings retain and hold their values more so than those that aren’t designated, that they offer affordable, adaptable options for small local businesses, contribute to neighborhood walkability, and drive heritage tourism.
But underneath those exterior things, behind the building materials and number crunching, are stories that need telling and, in turn, tell us who we are.