Two historic St. Pete buildings may come down

- Two of St. Petersburg historic structures may soon disappear, and most people may not notice. 

For a couple of decades, the National Bank of St. Petersburg building, and the neighboring Pheil building, have been hidden by building-sized aluminum screening. Thursday afternoon, FOX 13 News noticed two people taking pictures of the historic Snell Arcade right across the street, at Fourth Street at Central Avenue. 

Neither knew more history was lurking. Once one of the women was shown an old picture, Christina Brine looked up and said, "If you could tear off that metal- Wow- OK, I can kind of see it now." 

Architectural student Michael Stallings had a similar reaction. 

"I have a project here for school, and I never knew that that was below the skin of that across the street," he said.

The bank building originally housed St. Petersburg's second bank, with the backing of most of the famous names of the early 1900's. 

The Pheil Building was built one floor at a time by A.C. Pheil, an early business leader who did not like borrowing money. 

"The story's pretty cool because he built, like, literally one story at a time as he had money and supplies to do it," St. Petersburg Museum of History director Rui Farias recounted. 

Pheil is also seen in the form of a mannequin in the museum's replica of the Benoist. 

"He paid $400 for that first airplane ride on the Benoist back in January 1914," Farias said. "So he's the first passenger ever on the world's first commercial airliner."

The land beneath both structures is now owned by Pheil's family trust, with a real estate trust on the hook for $700,000 a year land lease payments for the next 42 years. 

Under a deal brokered by Mayor Rick Kriseman, the REIT will pay the Pheil trust $10 million with a big proviso.

"The ability to demolish has to be there for this deal to go through," Kriseman told FOX 13 News. "That doesn't mean it has to be demolished... but it's more marketable if at least they have the ability to demolish the whole site."

Normally, developers have to obtain building permits before historic structures can be demolished, but city regulations provide for exceptions and the city is facilitating such an exception. One fact that has now survived a century remains unchanged. 

"All in that Fourth and Central area, that's where the heart of the business district was being built, the taller buildings, the bank buildings, the office buildings," historian Farias said.

"You're talking Central Avenue and Fourth, I mean it's right in the heart of downtown," Kriseman agreed, explaining his personal involvement. "It's a big block that could have a big impact on that area."

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