Sarasota Historic Preservation Board Denies Permit to Demolish Historic Hotel Built During Segregation

The 1926-built Colson Hotel in the Rosemary District has been spared for now.

By Kim Doleatto April 10, 2024

1425 Eighth St., in the Rosemary District

Image: Brian Jones

Sarasota's historic McAlpin home is teetering on the edge of the chopping block to make way for a 10-story mixed-use project in downtown Sarasota. Now there's another almost-century-old structure whose fate might be in limbo.

The Rosemary District building at 1425 Eighth St. was the site of Sarasota’s first Black hotel. Built by Edwin O. Burns, it was named for Rev. Lewis Colson, a formerly enslaved person who came to the area to plat the town as an assistant surveyor for the Florida Mortgage and Investment Company. With his wife Irene, who offered midwife services to those who couldn’t access them otherwise, they helped establish Overtown, Sarasota’s Black community. Colson died in 1923, and the hotel was named in his honor.

The hotel became a safe haven for Black travelers and residents during segregation when other hotels were off-limits. Its current owner applied for a demolition permit to make way for new construction townhomes on the half-acre lot, a proposal that was unanimously denied by the city’s Historic Preservation Board yesterday.

After previous owner Michael Diffley of JOXC Investments died, his brother-in-law sold the property last year to Maximilian Vollmer, the founder of Tampa's Vollmer Real Estate LLC, for $550,000—a great deal in a neighborhood where newly finished units are commonly priced in the millions.

Vollmer's proposed townhome project would see three-story units with two- and three-bedroom layouts with a rooftop Jacuzzi and outdoor living space. The units would be priced at roughly $800,000 to $900,000—considered competitive for the ZIP code. The property's zoning allows up to 40 units per acre and buildings as high as seven stories, making 19 units there possible.

The 1926 Colson Hotel had 28 rooms that boasted curtains and rugs, and four bathrooms with hot and cold running water. The ground floor of the two-story building also had a barber shop and soft drink parlor. When it debuted, the Sarasota Herald applauded the project and printed that the “fine yellow stucco on hollow tile” hotel was “built at a cost said to have exceeded $35,000.”

A Sarasota Herald newspaper clipping welcoming the Colson Hotel.

During its heyday, the hotel housed chitlin circuit entertainers and pro athletes, including local baseball great Buck O’Neil. According to Sarasota County Historical Resources, the Colson Hotel doesn’t appear to have been active past 1937. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, it was turned into the Hotel Palm.

Over the ensuing decades, Overtown was radically transformed and rebranded as the Rosemary District. A density overlay policy approved by the city ushered in pricey condo and townhome developments, pushing out many of the neighborhood's original residents and families.

Before the transaction last year, the Colson Hotel was most recently used as a 22-unit boarding house, with shared bathrooms and a rent average of $110 per week. A listing for the property said that "there is a substantial level of deferred maintenance that exists and the property may be well positioned for a redevelopment.” There was no mention of its historical significance as one of the last remaining Black landmarks in the City of Sarasota. 

Commercial realtor Sean Dreznin, who handled both sides of the transaction, says neighbors he contacted were not interested in purchasing the boarded-up building due to its neglected condition. But the demolition permit alerted the community to its potential fate, and roughly 17 speakers, including community leaders like Vicki Oldham, Willie Shaw and Jetson Grimes, urged the board to save it from the wrecking ball. 

The developer, accompanied by architect Chris Gallagher of Sarasota's Hoyt Architects, described the challenges and prohibitive costs of refurbishing the building, which are estimated at around $2 million. Pictures revealed gaping holes in floors, extensive water rot and termite damage, cracks in load-bearing walls and mold. The property also floods due to its low elevation. The applicant went on to argue that the building would be impossible to move and that redevelopment would help revive the street.

But speakers and board members agreed the structure is too historically significant to lose.

A historic photograph of the Colson Hotel

 "I kind of feel bad for this guy," Walter Gilbert said of the current property owner. "I don't think he knew what he was getting into with that building and its historical value not only to the Black community but the entire community. It's one of the few buildings left from that era in that area. I would like to see it remain. We would be forever grateful."

"We know the bad shape it's in," Gilbert added, "but people lived there a year and a half ago. My question is, 'Where was the city in servicing that property or the people living there?'"

Grimes recalled the many Black-owned shops, community hubs and homes, and the hotel, that marked Overtown.

“You would come to the bar on a Monday and find the big black Hudsons and Cadillacs and Buicks," he said. "This is our story. When we tell our story, it doesn't go very far. This hotel is our story. Please do the right thing and let us tell our story. It's Sarasota's story."

Following the speakers, Vollmer said he was open to potentially selling the property to someone who would take on the job of renovation, "as long as they do it in a timely way, and not leave it for five or 10 years," while he would proceed with the construction of adjacent townhomes on the rest of the land.

Although not locally historically designated, the structure is considered a contributing structure to the Overtown Historic District, is listed in the National Register of Historic Places and was on last year's Sarasota Alliance for Historic Preservation "Six to Save" list.

Vollmer has 10 days to appeal the recommendation with the Sarasota City Commission.

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