NEIGHBORHOODS: Historic Kenwood

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Historic Kenwood

St. Pete’s first suburb is now a charming and vital city neighborhood

BY LAURA MCGRATH

When Philadelphian Charles Hall first came to St. Petersburg in 1912, he bought up 160 acres of vacant land two miles slightly northwest of downtown. By 1914, those acres were platted and being sold as building lots for what was to become St. Pete’s first neighborhood for year-round residents. Until that time, most business owners and employees in the young city had traveled back and forth at approximately the same time as their largely tourist patrons.

But as the city experienced dramatic growth, the need for year-round businesses and housing for middle-class workers grew, too.  Hence, Hall’s subdivisions featured small cottages – most from about 800 to 1800 square feet. City directories from the 1920s and 1930s listed homeowner occupations: painters, contractors, salesmen, bookkeepers, policemen and others with modest income levels.

Fast forward to 2018, and Historic Kenwood, now comprising some 375 acres, stretches from I-275 to 34th Street, and from Central Avenue to Ninth Avenue North. It is a thriving neighborhood of about 1100 homes on charming tree-lined brick streets with granite curbs. Some 500 of these properties incorporate back apartments that were either built as such or garages that have been transformed to create small dwellings. New construction at the southwestern edge of the neighborhood now includes modern multi-story apartments.

A majority of the historic homes were built between the late teens and the Great Depression, with another influx in the early 1950s. Many have now been lovingly restored – for good reason: they are beautiful houses. Historic Kenwood earned a place on the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. As Florida State Historic Preservation Officer Dr. Janet Snyder Matthews noted on the Registration Form: “The significance of the composition of the neighborhood is particularly important, as the quality of architectural design is not the result of income, but rather the result of high-minded planning ideals and inherently good design.”

Twelve historic architectural styles have been identified, but more than 500 dwellings are Craftsman Bungalows, giving Historic Kenwood one of the largest concentrations of this distinctive style in Florida, and indeed in the entire United States. Other prominent styles include Mediterranean Revival, Tudor Revival, Colonial Revival, Ranch, Minimal Traditional, and Frame or Masonry Vernacular. Most were built with garages at the rear of each lot, with entrances through the alley. As a result, there were no barriers to disrupt street-side views, and open front porches still promote casual neighborly visits.

Tough Times and Rejuvenation                                         

The charm and beauty that were evident during the first two to three decades after Historic Kenwood’s founding and that exist again today went missing for a few decades. As air conditioning became common and slightly larger homes more affordable, many residents fled west. As a result, this neighborhood sagged into shabbiness. Properties were neglected. Porches were enclosed to accommodate more people. And in a neighborhood where homes had been largely owner-occupied, by the 1980s, some 85 percent became rentals.

It took vision and dedicated effort to make the turnaround. One of the first to appreciate the beauty and potential of Historic Kenwood’s housing stock was Bob Jeffrey. With a background in historic preservation and experience as one of St. Pete’s city planners, he bought his first Kenwood house in 1990. Since the house next door was essentially a junk yard, he soon bought that one, too. He rehabbed both homes, and then others on the street. “People kept coming over to my house – whichever one I was living in – and saying they’d buy a house if they could just find one that looked like mine,” he says. So he continued buying, renovating and selling single family homes in the neighborhood, essentially at cost.

By 1999, self-described “flipper” Kathy Young had begun rehabbing the first of more than 40 homes in need, and a growing number of individual homeowners had moved into the neighborhood and rehabilitated run-down houses. So Bob shifted his focus to the small apartment buildings that remained problem properties. To date, he and his sister Lynn Jeffrey have rehabbed more than 40 units in 15 buildings, earning a string of preservation awards from St. Petersburg Preservation (now “Preserve the ‘Burg”) in the process.

In addition to the individuals who renovated properties, it took other factors to transform the neighborhood. Mayor David J. Fisher, who held office from 1991 to 2001, launched “Operation Commitment” in 1993. This was an intensive revitalization effort, and through it Historic Kenwood got new sidewalks, infrastructure improvements and many other investments. A code sweep was initiated with a goal of bringing every property up to minimum code levels. The adjoining Central Avenue area was designated the Grand Central District in 2001 and was declared a Main Street community by both the National Register of Historic Places and the Florida Main Street Program. That initiative brought about a significant revitalization effort and yielded the restaurants and shops that make it popular today.

Active Kenwood Residents

But by far the biggest factor in the revitalization of Historic Kenwood has been its strong and very active neighborhood association. Founded in 1990, the association has had the benefit of strong leadership from the outset from a variety of individuals, including Leslie Curran, who served on St. Petersburg City Council from 1989-1997 and 2005-2013.

The association has initiated numerous projects over the years. The Craftsman style pavilion in Seminole Park (a one-block park donated to the city by Charles and Emma Hall in 1914) was funded with a city grant and built entirely by neighborhood volunteers. The association established and continues to sponsor an annual Founders Day Picnic, Easter Egg Hunt, and Christmas and Halloween lighting competitions. Its premier event, the annual BungalowFest, a November home tour now in its 20th year, attracts some 800 people. Pinot in the Park, a gala dinner, is now in its fifth year, and sold out every year.

Immediate past president Brenda Gordon says, “It’s impossible not to love this neighborhood. We have so many ways for people to participate and volunteer, so people really get to know and care about one another. This is a community in the truest sense.”

Today, Historic Kenwood is a vibrant diverse community of old and young, straight and LGBTQ, and multiple cultural and ethnic backgrounds. Numerous artists make their homes here, and the officially city-designated Artist Enclave enables them to work in home studios, exhibit or perform, and share ideas and skills. A public arts initiative recently resulted in hiring professional artists to paint the seven benches in Seminole Park, with more projects in the works. Kenwood Kidz brings young families together monthly for imaginative play activities in the park. The Neighborhood Partnership program brings neighborhood volunteers together with high school and area church volunteers and city workers to rehabilitate the exteriors of homes and gardens for selected neighbors who are unable to care for their properties. The monthly online newsletter and Neighborhood Partnership and Kenwood Kidz programs have won national awards from Neighborhood USA.

As current president Michelene Everett says, “We are a neighborhood that truly celebrates diversity. We understand that our differences are insignificant in comparison to the things that connect us. Here, folks are willing to cross the road for each other, and to get involved. Neighborhoods like Historic Kenwood are what makes St. Petersburg great.”

Laura McGrath is one of Historic Kenwood’s volunteer tour guides for Preserve the ‘Burg. 

Old Building is New Again

One of Bob Jeffrey’s most recent projects – and probably his favorite – is a Mission style structure that was heading for demolition. The process of renovation proved neither easy nor cheap. Both the house and the adjoining garage had to be completely gutted and required new roofing, electrical, plumbing, HVAC, doors, windows, and landscaping. When the second floor of the garage was jacked up to create a new foundation, the old walls collapsed on two sides. For good reason, Lynn Jeffrey dubbed the property “Costa Lotta.” Now Bob has his office there and rents out three splendid apartments. “It had good bones and it turned out well,” he says.