Local media was abuzz last week with news that the historic Union Trust building at 895 Central Avenue has been leased, with local entrepreneur Jim Fiore announcing plans for a high-end restaurant in the nearly 100-year-old building.
While it may have taken a while, the fact that the bank building remains and will be reimagined for a new generation with its unique architectural details and irreplaceable features, such as a basement vault containing original safe deposit boxes, is proof that historic preservation works.
Built in 1926, the bank failed in 1930 but emerged the same year after a reorganization and billed itself as the only local bank to weather the Depression. It soon became the largest state-chartered bank in Florida.
“Almost every loan, land sale, home mortgage or savings account started at the stately Union Trust building,” says preservationist and Preserve the ‘Burg board member Emily Elwyn.
NationsBank, a precursor to Bank of America, planned to tear down the structure in 1997, making way for additional parking. The bank began Interior demolition, and salvagers began removing the marble flooring, brass features, and cherry-wood paneling when Preserve the ‘Burg stepped in.
In the summer of 1997, Preserve the ‘Burg - then known as Saint Petersburg Preservation and led by Howard Hansen - submitted an application to designate the building as a local historic landmark. According to the Tampa Bay Times, City Council approved a historic designation “with little fanfare” in May of 1998, saving the building from demolition.
The stone structure with the clock tower on the corner has been empty since NationsBank moved out in 1996. In 2005, there were plans to renovate the building for the “Arts Center” development and build a condo tower on the site, but sluggish sales and the Great Recession killed the project.
In 2019, the Related Group purchased the 2.5-acre site for $9.1 million and, despite the building’s status as a landmarked property, lobbied the City to demolish the building’s 1938 and 1960s-era additions while retaining and incorporating the original, neoclassical 1926 building into their “Icon” development.
As a landmarked property, the owner can take advantage of an ad valorem tax break, which freezes the building’s pre-improvement tax rate at its current level for the next 10 years. Meanwhile, the City’s Intown Redevelopment Plan (IRP) Historic Preservation and Conservation Grant provides up to $250,000 in funding, and the project could also be eligible for a 20% tax rebate from the State of Florida. Historically designated buildings also enjoy some leeway with regard to building codes.
In 2022, Preserve the ‘Burg awarded All Trades Historical with a Preservation Award for their restoration work on the building, which included fabrication and installation of 22 arched brick windows, metal window restoration and complete rebuild and relocation of the building's historic clock.
“This building will add to St. Pete’s unique vibe,” says Elwyn. “Not only will the building be reactivated, but the owner now has something that no one else has, and no one else can replicate. The value of that is immeasurable.”