Efforts renewed to save Bradenton's historic Covington House

Bradenton landmark, built in 1911, has fallen into disrepair

myoung@bradenton.comJune 20, 2014 

BRADENTON -- When Charles Covington built his Victorian-style home in 1911 at 614 11th Ave. W., the two-story stick-frame house stood as a symbol of what was hoped would be an affluent African-American neighborhood in the early days of Bradenton.

Covington built the home with his sons on a small parcel of farmland and became one of the premier home builders of the day responsible for many of the neighborhood's homes and churches.

His reputation crossed early racial lines as he was retained to build many other homes for the white population, an extraordinary accomplishment at the time, according to Rodney Jones, former director of the now dissolved Bradenton Front Porch Community, an agency formed prior to the economic downturn to restore the city's historic properties.

The current condition of the Covington House tells a different tale than the one of splendor and glory of yesteryear. Trees grow out of the roof and porch, vines slither up its century-old siding, and its second floor is giving away to time and nature as it slowly descends onto the home's ground floor.

Windows are broken, and the property is sometimes used for a dumping ground. Even through the structure's dilapidated state, hints of early 20th century architecture jumps out at the untrained eye, providing a visionary tale of what it must have looked like in its prime.

That vision is worth saving, according to James Pate, a 60-year neighbor down the street from the Covington House who has seen firsthand not only the

beauty of the home, but its importance to the community.

"I would love to see it restored back to its glory," said Pate. "It was once really beautiful, and it's really important to restore it because we don't have many landmarks left in Bradenton."

Pate said as the neighborhood declined over the decades, it was the Covington House and the family that stood as a symbol of continued hope.

"Many people in this neighborhood have lived below the poverty level for many years, and this was always the nicest house for a long time," he said. "And they were the nicest people around and were always involved with the neighborhood and everyone in it."

Earlier this year, the city passed an ordinance making it easier to begin to demolish abandoned homes. In the preliminary list of homes targeted for review was the Covington House.

Cathy Slusser, director of the Manatee County Historical Resources Department, was included in the communications and on May 6 sent a letter to the city objecting to the Covington House, among others, being included in the city's review.

"This building is one of the few historic buildings still left related to Bradenton's African-American history," wrote Slusser. "Its gingerbread trim and wraparound porch on two stories is significant and unique not only to its maker, but for its time period."

Code Compliance Manger Volker Reiss said the home has been on the city's radar for some time as a potential historical landmark.

However, because of its condition, it is a code violation issue. Reiss said for now, no fines are being levied in hopes that a historical foundation will pick up a ball dropped around 2007 when the economy took a downturn.

While the Bradenton Front Porch Community is no longer an entity, it does retain the deed for the property. It was deeded to the Front Porch Community in 2007 for $1 by Covington's descendants, who were no longer able to financially care for the property. The goal in doing so was to see it restored.

"We actually had a grant approved and secured funding to do the drawings to get it to the point of construction," said Jones. "Then the economy tanked, and funding for these types of projects dried up. They even pulled back the funding that we were approved for."

Jones said the Covington House plans, as well as everything the Front Porch Community was trying to do, "spiraled downward from there. The crash lasted longer than we were able to do. So it just sat there through the recession with not a lot of activity. We still have and it's a travesty that we can't do anything with it."

Jones said the estimated cost to renovate in 2007 was $500,000.

"I couldn't begin to imagine what it is now, and now we know there are other problems," he said.

The home was built next to an oak tree that is estimated to be twice as old as the home. Its root system is undermining the foundation, and in order to restore the house, it would need to be picked up and moved away from the tree.

Reiss said he visited the home around the time when "there was a lot of energy to get it restored. It's like stepping back into time. I'm hopeful a foundation specializing in restoring severely distressed structures will save the home and turn it into a community center or African-American museum."

Reiss said with a new park, school and the anticipated Save-A-Lot grocery store in the Minnie L. Rogers Plaza, the house "will become like a fourth pillar of this community."

While there has been some vandalism to the house, Reiss said for as long as it has stood empty, he is surprised the problem hasn't been worse.

"For some reason, a lot people respect this home, and it hasn't had those kind of typical problems," he said. "It's a focal point of pride for this neighborhood."

Reiss said it is doubtful the city will take any further action on the Covington House, with hopes that it can be saved.

Jones said it's an important commitment.

"The city has been so gracious with us in this property," he said. "I hope we can save it, but I don't know where we can get that kind of money."

Organizations willing to help can call Jones at 941-932-6136.

Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041 or follow him on Twitter @urbanmark2014.

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