A UWF Historic Trust survey of downtown Pensacola’s west side could lead to new protections for the historic buildings remaining in the city’s Tanyard neighborhood.
Historically a vibrant, racially-diverse residential neighborhood filled with creole cottages and shotguns, the Tanyard grew up around downtown Pensacola’s working waterfront, which included the Frisco docks and the Bruce Beach Dry Dock company. In the decades after those industries dried up, however, the neighborhood was decimated by waves of redevelopment, including the 1970s-era Governmental Center District, which saw entire blocks of homes demolished to make way for state and local government buildings, including the M.C. Blanchard Judicial Center, the Chappie James State Building, and City Hall.
Over the years, a few homes — including the 1805 Julee Cottage — were moved from the Tanyard to the Pensacola Historic Village or the Seville neighborhood, but many were destroyed, including the 1847 Hulse House, demolished to make way for a parking lot.
The Governmental Center District, or GCD, is one of the city’s five review districts, meaning that any demolition or new development in the district must be approved by the city’s Architectural Review Board. In practice, however, the district’s vague regulations have failed to save historic structures like the John Sunday House, nor to prevent developments which many feel are incompatible with the area’s urban character. While other city review districts have detailed regulations, the city code lacks specifics when it comes to the GCD.
For example, while the code requires that new developments within the GCD be “compatible with the built environment” of the district, it doesn’t outline what exactly makes a development compatible or incompatible, leaving it to review board members to interpret what that means. In recent years, frustrated by what they’ve seen as arbitrary or capricious decisions, developers have increasingly sought to side-step the ARB by appealing to the city council to taking their cases to court.
The confusion has led some city officials to question whether there’s anything left worth protecting in the Tanyard, and whether the GCD should continue to exist. In June, Mayor Ashton Hayward and City Councilman Andy Terhaar cosponsored legislation to abolish the district, but the move was flatly rejected by council members.
Academics, however, have long recognized the historic significance of the neighborhood, with State Archaeologist Ross Morrell calling the area “one of the five most important archaeological sites in the Southeast” in the 1970s. Morrell asked county commissioners in 1974 to approve $35,000 for a complete archaeological survey of the area, but his request was refused.
Prompted by the recent attention on the district, UWF historic preservationist Ross Pristera and interns Laurie Kraus-Landry, Jessica Stevenson, and Gabe Curran spent around six months surveying and researching properties throughout both the GCD and the broader Tanyard neighborhood. It’s the first major resurvey of any of the city’s review districts since their inception, said Pristera, who presented city council members with the results of the survey on Thursday.
“We first had to research the property ownership and property lines,” Pristera said. “We used the property appraiser information to gather data to start with. We then went into the field to verify the information, take photos, and gather building information. We also had to date buildings and that is the hard part. The property appraiser info is sometimes correct but usually wrong. We used Sanborn maps, city directories, and other resources to date buildings. All of this info was put into data sheets for each property and put into an Excel sheet so we can make GIS maps. We also researched what was there before the GCD and the UWF Historic Trust Archive had pictures of buildings before they were demolished.”
Researchers found that the survey area includes a variety of architectural styles, ranging from Folk Victorian, Renaissance Revival and Art Deco to the Brutalist architecture of the 1970s-era government buildings. The area is also home to a large amount of vacant or redevelopable land, including the 19-acre site formerly occupied by the Main Street Wastewater Treatment Plant and now owned by developer Quint Studer.
The Historic Trust’s recommendation is that the GCD should be replaced by a larger review district, with a focus on commercial and mixed-use development and protections for the area’s remaining historic structures, including the 1941 Pensacola Vocational School building, 1942 Spring Street USO Building, and a 1930 brick warehouse on West Romana Street.
“The new district has mostly mixed-use, commercial, and government,” Pristera said. “It’s a lot easier to develop guidelines and regulations if the uses are closely related.”
The remaining residences in the Tanyard could then be included within a future Tanyard Historic District, modeled after the city’s other historic residential districts like North Hill, Old East Hill, and Seville.
City council president Brian Spencer, who cosponsored the survey using discretionary funds, plans to bring the Historic Trust’s recommendations to a city council vote by October. If council members sign off on the concept, the city’s planning board would then be tasked with working out the specifics.
“The survey is over, but now the hard work begins in turning this into a reality,” Pristera said. “I hope we can keep the momentum going and have a replacement district for the GCD in the next four to six months.”
Check out the UWF Historic Trust’s Government Center Survey: