TAMPA — Willie Robinson Jr.’s mother told him to hang onto the family’s 112-year-old rooming house for as long as he could.
That task is getting harder, rainy day by rainy day.
A special magistrate with the city’s code enforcement board this week gave Robinson 30 days to brace and stabilize the historic Jackson House and install a temporary cover to keep rain from pouring through gaping holes in the roof.
City officials also told Robinson to take down a crumbling chimney, brick by brick. The bricks will be stored and preserved for future use.
“I’m a history guy. I like old buildings like this but we’ve got to move forward,” said Special Magistrate Alex Dunmire. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
The Jackson House, at 851 Zack St., stands isolated amid parking lots, a relic of a rich history in and around Central Avenue’s black business and entertainment district. During segregation the rooming house was among few establishments where blacks could find lodging. Visitors included Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and James Brown.
Central Avenue businesses vanished in the 1960s and ‘70s during highway construction projects.
At the hearing, code enforcement inspectors said the wood-frame structure is in danger of collapsing and is a public safety hazard. “The chimney is our greatest fear,” said Kevin Amos, district supervisor with the city’s code enforcement department. “It will reduce some risk if we remove it,” he said.
Robinson in June was given 60 days to begin repairs but code enforcement inspectors this week said no work had been done.
Robinson is seeking approval of a charitable organization that can accept donations to defray repair costs. It could be 90 days before he receives notification, he said.
“My eyes are not closed,” said Robinson. “I don’t want the Jackson House to be a problem, a safety problem. I want it to be in a positive light.”
Meanwhile he is working with Matt Depin of Bracken Engineering to find a contractor to remove the chimney. Bracken previously has supported clean-up efforts at the house and done minor repairs there for free. One option, Robinson said, is to allow a city contractor to do the work and for the city to put a lien on the house.
Depin said he hopes a company will consider doing the work for free or at a discounted fee.
Robinson’s maternal grandmother, Sarah Jackson, was the original owner of the 24-room Jackson House. His mother, Sarah Robinson, inherited the rooming house, operating it for more than 50 years until her death in 2009 at age 89.
Robinson returned to Tampa from Texas in the last year of his mother’s life. “I felt very honored when my mother turned it over to me,” he said.
But with few financial resources he has struggled to preserve the rooming house.
In addition to the chimney, the building’s windows, door frames and porch are in disrepair. Outside walls need painting, and aluminum siding must be removed to meet guidelines for historical structures.
The house is on the National Register of Historic Places, the Florida Heritage Trail, and is a local historic landmark. Dunmire said the house is a signficant part of Tampa’s history.
“Thank you for everything you’ve done to try and save the building,” Dunmire told Robinson. “It’s not been lost on me or the city.”
Robinson said some people have suggested he sell the house. That isn’t an option he wants to consider, he said. But Robinson remains hopeful. “I feel very strongly that something is going to be done,” he said.