Clearwater’s First Skyscraper
Photo/Text by Donna Malloy
Photo Courtesy Heritage Village/Text by Donna Malloy
The big fire of 1910 provided a window of opportunity for the redevelopment of downtown Clearwater and as a result, bricks were declared the building material of choice for future city projects. Five stories high, the press dubbed the new Coachman Building at 503 Cleveland Street Clearwater’s first skyscraper. The year was 1916; the contractors were Solomon Smith (S.S.) Coachman and John Phillipoff.
Accompanied by his three brothers, S.S. Coachman left Echols County, Georgia and arrived in Florida in 1881. Five years later, S.S. and brother Edward Horace settled in Clearwater. Anxious to make his fortune, S.S. Coachman opened a sawmill business near the historic Belleview Biltmore Hotel; one of his customers was Henry Plant who ordered planks of pine for the building of his famous hotel.
Circa 1870, another group of brothers moved to Florida; surnamed McMullen. Together, siblings William, Thomas Fain, James, Daniel, John Fain, David and Malcolm raised livestock and farmed their land, which was extensive.
In 1894, S.S. Coachman opened a General Store, specializing in fancy groceries that were delivered by “Old Uncle Jack,” a local African American man. Located in the general area of the Coachman Building today, the General Store successfully operated for 20 years.
Continuing to build his empire, in 1901 Coachman purchased a log cabin home situated on 240 acres of land from the McMullen family and began his citrus and packing house business near the intersections of NE Coachman and Old Coachman Road in East Clearwater. The double-pen log house had openings for windows with no glass panes, a dog trot breezeway in the middle of the house and wide porches at the front and back. The heart pine logs were joined by pegs and there were large gaps between logs that allowed the generous entrance of sunlight, wind and rain.
Stated brother James McMullen: “I wouldn’t give anything for a house that didn’t have cracks wide enough to throw a cat through.” Now preserved at Heritage Village in Largo, Captain McMullen and Elizabeth Campbell McMullen’s home, circa 1852, is recognized as the oldest log cabin in Pinellas County.
Now a man of wealth, in 1914 Coachman lobbied and was successful in convincing the new Tampa and Gulf Coast Railroad to crisscross his property. When completed, known as the “Tug and Grunt” line, the run now connected Coachman’s citrus business to Tampa and St. Petersburg, offering additional stops in Safety Harbor, Dellwood (near Alligator Creek and McMullen-Booth Road), Coachman Station and Clearwater. Years later, in 1980, St. Petersburg Time’s Editor W.L. Straub noted that (S.S.) Solomon’s move to bring the rail line though his property increased the value of his land “immeasurably.”
S.S.’s Coachman Building project began in 1916. It was constructed using horizontal steel beams and framed in wood. A Flemish bond pattern decorated the brick exterior façade of his building and the arched and stepped corbelling on the 4th and 5th floors was capped with a flat, parapet roof above. The Woman’s Club of Clearwater wrote this description of the new building in March of 1917: “At present a brick block, five stories high, equipped with elevator, steam heat and janitor service, designed for offices and apartments, is nearing completion. The fifth floor will be used by our Lodges.” And on June 28th, 1917, the Clearwater News reported the new Coachman Building was “well built, well ventilated and well lighted.”
Of social significance is the fact that Florida’s first black Supreme Court Justice, Joe Hatchett, was employed as an elevator operator in the Coachman Building and was able to obtain a higher education through funds given to him by the nearby Presbyterian Church. Historian Mike Sanders noted in an interview he conducted with J.A. Coachman in 1979: “A Coachman sat on the funding committee.”
One long-term tenant in the Coachman Building was Dentist Robbie McMullen. Robbie, born on June 14th, 1896, was the grandson of pioneer Daniel McMullen, one of the seven brothers noted above. Robbie was also a member of the first graduating class of Largo High School of 1915.
Recognizing the historical significance of the Coachman Building in the historical architecture, commerce, social and humanitarian categories, historian Connie Mudano appealed to the Florida Department of State’s Historic Sites in January of 1983 requesting historic recognition of the Coachman Building. Unfortunately, even if the Coachman Building was recognized on the National Historic Registry, the designation does not protect the building from being defaced or demolished in the future. The designation only protects the structure from eminent domain in some cases.
Until the City of Clearwater commits to forming a downtown Historic District, priceless structures such as the Coachman Building will not be protected. Neither will be our sense of place, telling us the story of who we were and how far we have travelled. Stated Robert Redford in his Sundance Catalog: "I love history, I wish more did."
Photo Courtesy Heritage Village/Text by Donna Malloy
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