The Snell Building – If a Building Could Talk!

If a building could talk, one would certainly want to sit down with the Snell building, anticipating a fascinating and unique conversation. The hard part would be how to choose the topics to fit into a single conversation! Should the conversation include how the Snell managed to rise in 1928 as the bust was taking over St. Petersburg, and include stories about the building’s original owner/developer, C. Perry Snell, whose second career as a developer raised the value of more property on the Pinellas Peninsula than any other individual or group over a nearly forty year time span? Or, one could easily spend a day discussing the Snell’s architect, Richard Kiehnel, and the architectural style and detailing he chose, including the arcade that banker Hubert Rutland closed off after he purchased the building in 1943! Finally, the Snell could explain to you how today’s owners have used existing preservation incentives to again make the building one of the downtown stars and a building fit for modern times.

It will be interesting to see which of the various construction booms future historians will choose as the most transformative for St. Petersburg. Will it be the booming 1920’s when St. Pete transformed itself from small town to a leading tourist destination? Will it be the booming post World War II era when concrete block “suburban” homes spread across much of the city’s vacant land? Or, will it be the present era as the city has found itself taking center stage with rising popularity? A quick look back will help set the stage for understanding the Snell Buildings place in St. Petersburg’s development.

In 1920, St. Petersburg was still more or less a small town, its population pegged at 14,000 by the U.S. Census. By the mid’20’s the boom was in full force, the city’s growth was exploding and the city’s future never looked brighter, in part thanks to the marketing genius of city publicist John Lodwick. He tirelessly promoted the city using the themes of sunshine, bathing beauties and sports.

Perry Snell (far left in picture), a successful pharmacist from Bowling Green, Kentucky came to St. Petersburg for his honeymoon (with his first of several wives) in 1899. By 1904, they had moved permanently to St. Petersburg and he started a second career developing his new home city. Snell was an extensive world traveler; in Europe he gathered bits and pieces of ideas, artwork and artifacts for use in his buildings. In 1925, he planned Snell Isle as a prestigious series of homes in Spanish and Italian architectural style. Suddenly, however, by the end of 1925, the economy had turned and another chapter of boom-to-bust was starting, leaving much of the plan for Snell Isle incomplete. Snell, however, was intent on constructing an edifice, the “Snell Building” and it became the last significant building constructed downtown before the bust effectively ended city growth.

Construction of the “Snell” began in late spring 1928, with the stand-out feature of a single, ornate tower crowning the building. Few realize the original plans called for two towers and that the building foundation was designed with this in mind. The Depression, however, stopped the second tower from being built.  Another significant feature, one that was common downtown at that time, was the arcade that stretched through the building from Central Avenue to the Open Air Post Office (1916). In the Arcade alone, there must have been twenty-five different tile designs used, many of which Snell brought from Europe and were mixed and matched without any sense of order or plan.

Overall, the building epitomizes the highly ornate Mediterranean Revival Style with Spanish influence associated with its prominent architect, Richard Kiehnel. Locally, he also designed the Rolyat Hotel, now Stetson School of Law. Some say Louis Sullivan created the skyscraper so Mr. Kiehnel could tack on his Spanish influence, while others suggest it was because of Kiehnel's influence that this style became characteristic in the early part of the 20th century for Central and South Florida.

The Snell contains probably every architectural detail that Spanish Architecture ever contained, from brackets supporting quadrafoiled arches to ornate wrought iron and moorish gothic windows . Materials include pink etowah marble from Georgia, keystone along the exterior façade from the Florida Keys and terra-cotta glazed tile. Few other buildings in St. Petersburg used terra-cotta as the skin of the building. The building also has a large copper canopy shading the sidewalks and, most remarkably for St. Petersburg, a basement. Shortly after construction started, it was believed an underground spring was breached, flooding the excavation and resulting in workers being called to the scene at 3 A.M. The original basement floor was poured two feet below the water table, a fact that would result in future and ongoing moisture problems.  

For those who have lived in St. Petersburg during bygone decades, the Rutland name is sure to sound familiar.  Hubert Rutland first got involved with banking in 1955, eventually leading to the creation of Rutland Bank. The Rutland family, dating from the 1920’s, operated downtown’s Rutland Department Store (located for many decades at the corner of Central Ave. & 5th St.). Rutland purchased the Snell building in 1943 and in 1950, amazingly, he decided to close off, partially demolish and construct a new floor at mid-level in the arcade. Luckily, he did little other work or maintenance to the building that would result in a loss of its other significant historic features. In 1980, Rutland sold an option for the building to an investor group headed by Robert B. Roberts, Jr. who, in turn, sold it to John Galbraith of Securities Fund Management, Inc. Shortly thereafter, with the assistance of local architect Charlie Canerday, Galbraith began restoring the building at a cost of approximately $2.5 million. The renovations included reopening the arcade and converting the building to offices.

Beginning in 2003, the Snell was again renovated and converted into 12 residential condos on its upper floors and ground level retail and basement office spaces. Today, it remains as one of downtown’s most desirable and unique residential addresses. As a result of its placement on the National Register of Historic Places in 1982 (after being been designated as among the first of St. Petersburg’s local landmarks in 1986 )the Snell became eligible to use incentives from the historic preservation “tool box”, a way to help make the numbers “work” and to encourage reuse of historic buildings.

The St. Petersburg preservation program provides for the transfer of development rights (“TDR’s”) for locally or nationally designated historic buildings. TDR’s can be sold by the historic building owner on the private market to developers who wish to use the development “bonuses” to allow for increased building intensity for their proposed project. “ONE”, the new condo high rise on 1st Street, is one example of a downtown building that used the historic TDR program.

Another tool is a preservation easement. The owner of the historic building typically donates an easement for the building’s exterior façade to a historic preservation non-profit, meaning the non-profit will act as a check on any proposed changes to a building’s significant exterior historic features. In return, the historic building owner may receive a tax deduction and a lower tax assessment as the future development potential of the property is limited by the easement. More information about preservation incentives can be found by clicking here.

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