A century-old Pensacola home could soon be leveled to make way for modern townhomes, should officials approve the home’s demolition at a meeting next week.
The John Sunday House, located at 302 West Romana Street just west of Pensacola’s downtown core, was built in 1901 by Sunday, a prominent African-American businessman. Sunday was born in 1838 to a white father and black mother. After fighting under General Ulysses S. Grant on the Union side of the Civil War, Sunday returned to Pensacola and served as a state legislator and city alderman during Reconstruction. Trained as a wheelwright, Sunday built a substantial construction business and helped establish the Belmont-Devilliers area as a center for black commerce.
Booker T. Washington profiled Sunday in his 1907 book The Negro in Business:
But 115 years later, the house’s current owners say renovating the structure would be too costly, and they’re asking the city’s Architectural Review Board to sign off on their plans to demolish the house. ARB members are set to tour the home at a special meeting this Friday, and could make a decision on the demolition at the board’s regular meeting on March 17.
House in poor shape, owners say
In a letter to city officials, the owners’ attorney Charles Liberis called the house “uninsurable” and “a fire hazard,” noting that it has been occupied by the homeless and vagrants at numerous points in the ten years it has sat vacant. The Escambia County Property Appraiser has essentially said the home has no value in its current condition, placing a value of $1 on the structure.
Surveys conducted by Dean A. Spencer Engineering and Professional Service Industries, Inc., 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,” Spencer wrote.
Despite calling the home’s actual historical value “questionable,” the current owners did offer to donate the main house to the University of West Florida on the condition that they move it, an option that UWF spokesperson Megan Gonzalez said is being considered. “UWF has not declined or accepted an offer by the owners to donate the home,” said Gonzalez. “The evaluation process for determining if a house can and should be moved takes time.”
Descendant says house should be preserved
Pearl Perkins, Sunday’s great-great-great granddaughter, says her grandmother grew up in the house. “Why don’t they preserve it?” Perkins asked, pointing out many other historic homes throughout Pensacola have been saved from demolition. “This man was a very prolific gentleman that had a significant impact on Pensacola. The house that he built and lived in as a free black man, they want to tear it down?”
Perkins says she’s written a book about Sunday based on oral histories recorded by her grandmother, but hasn’t gotten it published. “John Sunday’s story is just now beginning to get out there,” she said. “He babysat my grandmother. He told my grandmother war stories from the Civil War, how he and Ulysses Grant were friends, and how Ulysses Grant gave him his sword.”
Perkins said she had previously looked into purchasing the property and was quoted a purchase price of $1.5 million. The home was listed last year at $696,000.
“I just really have heartburn about tearing the house down,” Perkins said. “It certainly could be preserved and used as a museum.”
Townhomes could replace Sunday home
The owners are poised to sell the property to their attorney Liberis’ Olde City Developers, LLC, which wants to construct 27 townhome-style residences on the roughly 1.5-acre parcel. A preliminary site plan for the development, called “Romana Commons,” calls for 13 two-bedroom units and 14 three-bedroom units which would face an interior driveway and parking lot.
Liberis says that the economics of restoring the home “just aren’t there.” In addition to the costs of moving it to another site, the house would have to be “gutted and redone,” he said. “There have been lots of houses moved around and restored. If somebody has that passion I’m all for it. We certainly wouldn’t stand in the way of that.”
Assuming the ARB signs off on the home’s demolition, though, Liberis says the plan is to move forward with construction of the townhomes within 90 days. “Downtown’s just hot right now,” he said. “People really want to be a part of the downtown growth. The good news is that it brings people downtown and puts idle property back on the tax rolls.”
The townhomes are expected to retail in the $200,000 range.