Pensacola’s historic John Sunday House is likely safe for another month, but its fate could soon be decided by an Escambia County judge.
Developer Charles Liberis wants to tear down the 115-year-old home, located near Pensacola’s downtown core, in order to build 27 townhomes. Frustrated by routine delays imposed by the city’s architectural review board in order to explore preservation, Liberis filed suit last week, asking the court to order the city to issue a demolition permit immediately.
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.
The lawsuit is the latest move by developers to bypass the city’s established processes for obtaining a demolition permit.
Because the home is located within a historic district, the city’s Architectural Review Board must sign off on demolition. Citing the house’s structural soundness and historic significance, the board twice voted to table a decision in order to explore options for preservation — a tool the board has used routinely with success. Earlier this year, after the board tabled a decision on a demolition permit for a home in Pensacola’s Old East Hill neighborhood, the home was successfully moved and preserved.
But Liberis has pointed to a provision in the city’s code which requires the board to act on requests within 31 days. Despite the longstanding precedent, Liberis argued that a decision to table doesn’t constitute action, and City Attorney Lysia Bowling agreed. As a result, Liberis was able to bypass the board’s approval and obtain a demolition permit on May 17, but the permit was stayed after Pulse editor Derek Cosson filed an appeal of the decision. Cosson’s appeal was scheduled to be heard by the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustments next week.
On Thursday, Escambia County Judge Gary Bergosh issued a temporary injunction preserving the status quo pending a final decision in the case, which he expects to issue in approximately one month. As a result of the injunction, the city has cancelled next week’s planned appeal hearing.
More than 800 people have signed a petition asking city officials to save the house. Supporters also filled the room at a May 19 meeting of the Architectural Review Board, thanking the board for their efforts and arguing for preservation.
Real estate broker John David Ellis is president of the John Sunday Society, a citizen group trying to preserve the house. He says that the house itself only occupies a tenth of an acre — about 7% of the parcel’s total area — but Liberis has refused to consider subdividing the parcel or building around the house. “When I spoke with Liberis about the idea, he said, ‘No one wants to live next to an ugly house,'” said Ellis.
Liberis’ contract to purchase the property — which is contingent on the house’s demolition — is set to expire July 15.