Founded in 1559, Pensacola is America’s first city. But for a city with more than four and a half centuries of history, we haven’t always done the best job of protecting and preserving our precious historical sites.
Over the years, we’ve lost too many priceless, irreplaceable gems. Some, like the Pensacola Opera House, the original Lee House, and Phenix Building, fell victim to fierce hurricanes. Others, like the San Carlos Hotel — the Grand Dame of Palafox — were simply victims of our own inaction.
At a certain point, if Pensacola is going to “talk the talk” about its rich history and cultural heritage, then we’ve got to walk the walk. We have to make a conscious decision as a community to value our history and take steps to protect it, as cities like New Orleans, Charleston, and Savannah have done. Unfortunately, Pensacola tends to take our historic structures for granted until they’re in grave danger of disappearing.
One such historic treasure is indeed in grave danger. The 1901 John Sunday House could face demolition as early as this week, as developer Charles Liberis — with the help of some short-sighted city officials — has found a way to sidestep the established review process. Trading a 115-year-old home — built by one of Pensacola’s most significant and remarkable historic figures — for a bunch of modern, cookie-cutter townhomes isn’t just myopic. It isn’t just wrong. For a city with Pensacola’s historic prestige, it’s downright immoral.
As we’ve reported over the past month, the story of John Sunday is remarkable. Born a slave, Sunday fought in the Civil War, served as a city alderman and state legislator during Reconstruction, and built a successful construction business, eventually becoming one of the wealthiest African-Americans in the South — all at a time when many viewed blacks as second-class citizens. When Jim Crow forced black businesses out of downtown Pensacola, Sunday helped establish the Belmont-Devilliers area as a center for black commerce. A significant property owner, Sunday owned the land on which Pensacola landmarks like the Louisville & Nashville train depot and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church would later be built.
Let’s be honest with each other — if this were the Governor Perry House or the Clara Barkley Dorr House, we’d never be having this debate. In the unlikely event that someone ever proposed demolishing either, there’d be an uproar the likes of which Pensacola’s never seen. Unfortunately, African-American history — especially from the Jim Crow South — is simply less well-documented than white history. The prevailing stench of racism meant that African-American history often had to be chronicled by oral tradition rather than in white-owned newspapers. We’re still putting all the pieces together, but it’s safe to say that Sunday’s impact in shaping not only the history of Black Pensacola, but of Pensacola itself, cannot be overstated.
Now, we’re at risk of forever losing the elegant home that he built and occupied for nearly a quarter-century — one of the last remaining houses in a largely-redeveloped section of the Tanyard neighborhood. Home after home has been replaced by parking lots and cheap, generic developments that aren’t meant to last more than a few decades.
Of course, we don’t oppose development. Far from it. We’ve eagerly reported on new developments which continue to fuel Downtown Pensacola’s rebirth. We must balance our growth with the history that draws people to Pensacola in the first place. As experts at the National Trust for Historic Preservation have said, preserving our historic buildings is beneficial not only for a community’s culture, but also for its local economy.
No one’s arguing that we must save every old house, but this one is worth saving. We’ve come together as a community before to save houses which matter: the Quina House, the Julee Cottage, the McMillan House, and more. History calls on us to do it again. Sign our petition and let Mayor Ashton Hayward and the Pensacola City Council know that we must protect and preserve our history.
Pensacola is a special place — and the reason it’s special is that 450 years of history, culture, and diversity have made it that way. It’s time we live up to our legacy and stop tearing down our historic landmarks for a few pieces of silver. Our history is what sets Pensacola apart. It’s time for us to stand up to protect and preserve it.