The historic John Sunday House is safe from demolition for at least another month. Pensacola’s Architectural Review Board on Thursday voted to delay a decision on the fate of a historic turn-of-the-century home until the board’s next meeting on April 21.
The house — located at 302 West Romana Street — was built in 1901 by John Sunday, a prominent and successful African-American businessman in the late 19th and early 20th century. Sunday served as a city alderman and state legislator during Reconstruction, built a substantial construction business, and helped establish the Belmont-Devilliers area as a center for black commerce. In 1907, famed black author and educator Booker T. Washington called Sunday “the wealthiest colored man in that section of the state,” estimating Sunday’s worth at $125,000 — the equivalent of more than $3 million in today’s money.
Donald and Gayle Paro inherited the house from Gayle’s father ten years ago. After trying unsuccessfully to sell the home, the Paros are now asking the board to sign off on their plans for demolition. The house and the 1.5 acre parcel on which it sits are under contract to a development group, which plans to build 27 townhomes on the site. Because the house is located within a designated review district, demolition must be approved by the city’s seven-member Architectural Review Board.
Owners have argued restoration impratical
The Sunday House hasn’t been occupied in a decade, and surveys of the home conducted in February confirmed the presence of asbestos, mold, and lead paint in both the main home and an adjacent garage apartment. “It is my opinion that the two structures represent a health hazard and should be demolished,” wrote Dean Spencer, an engineer.
Some have also questioned the home’s historical value, noting that that numerous alterations have been made to the house over the past 115 years. Originally a wood frame house, a brick facade was added at some point, and a wraparound porch was removed as other additions were made.
Nonetheless, the house’s current owners say their original plan was to renovate and live in the home, but that its current issues make a renovation cost-prohibitive. The house has been on the market for six years with no serious offers, they say, pointing out that the Escambia County Property Appraiser has valued the structure at just $1. But John Ellis, a real estate broker, said at Thursday’s meeting that the property hasn’t been marketed as a potential renovation project, noting that listings for the property highlighted the potential of the land and didn’t include any photographs of the home’s interior architectural details.
Developer touts impact of townhomes
Charles Liberis, a Pensacola attorney who represents both the current owners as well as the potential development group, stressed the potential impact that redeveloping the site could have on the city’s bottom line. Liberis said the 27 planned townhomes would generate more than $100,000 in additional ad valorem tax revenue for the city, arguing that as a builder and developer, Sunday might well approve of something “productive” being developed on the site were he alive today.
Board member Nina Campbell reacted positively to Liberis’ conceptual plans for the townhomes, saying that downtown housing at Liberis’ planned price point was needed. Others disagreed, noting that the Sunday House occupies only a fraction of the 1.5 acre site and suggesting that the owners consider subdividing the parcel, allowing them to both develop the vacant land and perhaps market the Sunday House at a lower price point.
Board members favor preservation
After touring the home last week, several board members said they were impressed with how structurally sound the home is after more than a century. Indeed, a majority of board members spoken in favor of preservation, with at least two board members bluntly saying they would not vote to approve a demolition.
The current owners as well as the potential developer both say they’d donate the home if someone would agree to move the structure to another site, a step which they estimate would cost between $125,000 and $185,000. It’s unclear, though, whether or not a move is a real option. University of West Florida historic preservationist Ross Pristera told board members that the UWF Historical Trust doesn’t have a parcel large enough to host the house, and that even if it did, such a move would have to be studied and approved by multiple UWF boards.
Pearl Perkins, Mr. Sunday’s great-great-great granddaughter, wants to see the house preserved at its current site. Speaking at Thursday’s meeting, she pointed out that many of the historic structures in that vicinity have been replaced by modern buildings, leaving only the Sunday House and the nearby St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, which was founded by Sunday’s sister Mercedes on land he provided.
After lengthy discussion, the board voted to table a decision on demolition until its next meeting to allow anyone interested in purchasing the house for preservation to come forward. The board’s next meeting will be held at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, April 21 at Pensacola City Hall.