Fire Escape Plans Denied for Historic Home Preschool Project

A request to add fire escapes and alley-side parking to the historic Columbus W. Deen house was denied by the Historic Preservation Board’s Design Review Committee Thursday.

Though the committee approved adding an accessibility ramp and four parking spots adjacent to the driveway of the home at 417 Frank Lloyd Wright Way, the rejected parts of the request leaves the potential buyers to either significantly rethink the project or appeal the decision.

The applicants, Thomas and Madison Brawner, hope to open a preschool in the 5,500-square-foot home, which Thomas Brawner said is consistent with the building’s long history of non-residential use.

For 77 of the building’s 107 years it has been used in a number of ways, including as a wellness facility, a sanitarium and student housing, according to research presented by the city’s planning staff

To make the project financially viable, the second floor needs to be converted to classrooms, according to the application. And to have classrooms there, there needs to be ample fire suppression, like a sprinkler system, fire walls and fire corridors — or exits. 

The Brawners and their designer, Jon Kirk of Straughn Trout Architects, said they believe it is better to add external fire exits than to significantly change the interior of the house, which would include walling off its existing main staircase, a major feature. 

“We have a great respect for historic properties,” Brawner told the committee. “We’re not just these people trying to come in and take away the historic significance of the home.”

“If we did not have to put fire escapes on this building, we would not put fire escapes on this building,” he added, and to do that “we’re trying to as minimally invasive to the exterior of the property as possible.” 

The request was to remove second-story windows to convert to doors to connect to the fire escapes. The project has been subject of some controversy among the city’s historic neighborhood champions, notably the Lake Morton Neighborhood Association and Historic Lakeland Inc., a non-profit advocacy group. 

The house could be used in its restored condition as is as a single-family residence, Kirk said, but the Brawners are motivated buyers with an eye toward minimizing the changes to the building. 

Our previous coverage
Ledger coverage of Thursday’s meeting

The house has been on the market for two years, but it’s a large home and it has some adverse conditions affecting its marketability, Brawner said: the adjacent lot is vacant and Florida Southern College has student housing across the street. 

A meandering conversation including alternative ideas, questions about the board’s jurisdiction to determine whether the alley-side parking was in line with historic neighborhood standards, and other regulatory barriers was nipped by board member Lynn Dennis, who urged the board to stay in its lane as the arbiter of exterior historicity. 

“It’s pretty simple for us,” Dennis said, who proposed the approved motion to stick with the staff’s recommendation: deny the rear parking and fire escapes, approve the accessibility ramp and the driveway-adjacent parking spots. 

Deen House seen from the corner of Frank Lloyd Wright Way and Success Avenue

“This house has lasted more than 100 years with minimal changes to the exterior,” board member Nick Thomas said. “In the (historic design) guidelines it says if you change the use of the building you should minimally change the building itself. … To me it seems a sprinkler system would be much more minimally invasive.” 

Brawner reiterated that by making the necessary changes internally, it would too greatly disrupt the interior. “We had to pick one,” interior or exterior, he said. 

All but Thomas voted to approve Dennis’s motion. Thomas said he voted against it because he disagreed with the approval of the parking spaces parallel to the driveway. 

The Design Review Committee is a component of the nine-member Historic Preservation Board; it oversees the design of new and existing construction projects in the city’s historic districts in an effort to preserve the districts’ aesthetic and historic characteristics.

Decisions made by the committee can be appealed to the full board and then to the Second District Court of Appeal, if the applicant so chooses.

Historic Preservation Staff Report:

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