Attorneys for the owners of a historic Pensacola home are looking to bypass the city’s Architectural Review Board in their bid to demolish the 1901 John Sunday House.
The Liberis Law Firm of Pensacola represents both the current property owners as well as the potential developers. Attorney Charles Liberis, the firm’s owner, also leads a development group looking to tear down the house and build 27 townhomes on the site. Citing the house’s structural soundness and historic significance, the city’s Architectural Review Board has twice delayed a decision on the home’s demolition to allow time for interested parties to develop a plan for preservation. ARB members most recently voted in April to delay a decision until the board’s June meeting.
Sunday a remarkable figure
John Sunday, one of Pensacola’s most significant African-American historical figures, built the house in 1901 and lived there until his death in 1925. The son of a slave woman and her white owner, Sunday fought for the Union in the Civil War before returning to Pensacola, where he built a successful construction business and served as a city alderman and state legislator during Reconstruction. After Jim Crow laws pushed black businesses off Palafox Street in the early 20th century, Sunday helped establish the Belmont-Devilliers area as a black commercial district.
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.
After news of the potential demolition broke, Pensacola realtor John David Ellis formed the John Sunday Society, a group which Ellis says is aimed at “preserving the property in its place.” Ellis says that momentum to save the house is growing, and points to other historically significant homes which Pensacolians have come together to save over the years.
“In the City of Pensacola, perhaps moreso than any other city in America, we should be motivated by our history,” said Ellis. “John Sunday is a central figure to the story of Pensacola. If we lose his house, we lose the ability to tell some of that story. And this is a story we need to tell.”
Ellis said he’s enlisted the support of people with historic preservation experience, including Jon Hill, the executive director of the Pensacola Lighthouse and Museum. The lighthouse’s keeper’s quarters — which dates to 1869 — was threatened with demolition in 1990, but both the quarters and the lighthouse itself have now been preserved, and in 2014 received $400,000 in grants to help restore the complex.
Ideally, Ellis says, anyone looking to redevelop on the Sunday House site would embrace the house’s historical value and consider parcelling off the house or developing around it. “From a development perspective, it’s just bad development,” Ellis said. “If they were smart they’d look at the advantages they get from putting the house on the National Register of Historic Places.”
Developer ready to move forward
Liberis, however is ready to get moving. The ARB’s two delays effectively act as a denial, argues Liberis, who has filed a formal notice of appeal asking the city council to take up the question of demolition.
“Accordingly, we consider the response of the ARB to be tantamount to a denial of the application of my clients with respect to demolition of the structure on the property,” Liberis’ associate Benjamin Alexander wrote in a letter to city officials. “I also request that this matter be timely scheduled for hearing before the City Council in connection with the appeal.”
Liberis has argued that the 27 townhomes, which are expected to retail in the $200,000 range, will provide much-needed downtown housing opportunities and will contribute more than $100,000 per year in tax revenue to the city. Those arguments have won traction with some, including Mayor Ashton Hayward, who told ARB members in April that he supported the demolition request, though he would like to see Sunday recognized with a historical marker.
“We would like to save every building in America with historical value,” said Hayward. “However, I think [my office’s] position is that we’ve always wanted to create density downtown and move things west.”
Unclear what happens next
In the wake of Liberis’ letter, it’s not entirely clear what happens next. Pensacola’s city code says all plans for demolition within the Governmental Center District — the review district in which the Sunday House is located — “shall be subject to review and approval by the architectural review board.” Liberis has argued that the code requires the ARB to take action on a request within 31 days, and that the board’s failure to make a decision is the same thing as a denial.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that both the ARB and the city council are set to meet on the same day next month, which means that the issue will likely be discussed by both bodies. “The soonest it can be brought before the city council is June 16th,” said city spokesman Vernon Stewart on Tuesday. “This is the same day as the ARB meeting. Most likely, it will be heard first at the ARB meeting. Depending on what happens at that meeting will determine if it comes before council.”