Abram C. Pheil was born in Pennsylvania but settled in Citrus County, Florida in 1884, before relocating to St. Petersburg in 1894. He worked at a sawmill earning $1 a day. With his savings, Pheil purchased several lots, built houses on the lots, then sold them at a profit. He purchased the sawmill he worked at and the St. Petersburg Novelty Works in 1897 for $2,500.
Pheil played an active role in improving and promoting St. Petersburg. Before streets were actively maintained by the City, he would take sawdust from the mill and fill the sand ruts along Central Avenue, from 7th Street to the bay. He also advocated for municipal ownership of all public utilities. He was elected to City Council for two terms starting 1904 during which he led efforts to widen and straighten Central Avenue. Between 1912 and 1913, he also served as mayor of ST. Petersburg.
In 1904, Pheil purchased several parcels of land on Central Avenue for $2,250, and erected a three-story brick building on the site, the first in St. Petersburg. By 1915, he owned and operated the A.C. Pheil Dredging and Contracting Company.
In 1916, he started construction on an eleven-story building adjacent to his first building. Instead of utilizing credit to purchase the materials needed, he paid for each lot as it was received. Because of this, construction was slow and further delayed by World War I and the extremely high prices of construction materials following the war.
After the ground floor was completed sometime in 1920, the Pheil Theater opened and occupied the second and third floors of the building.
Albert Pheil died of cancer on November 1, 1922, having never seen the rest of the building completed. HIs family pledged to finish the building, which was completed during the winter of 1923-24. His sons opened the building in 1924 as the Pheil Hotel.
Originally named the National Bank of St. Petersburg, it was the third bank organized in the city. Established in 1905, a lot was purchased on the wouthwest corner of Central Avenue and 4th Street, and constructed an office which opened on July 1, 1905. In 1910, the name was changed to Central National Bank.
In 1911, construction on a new building on the same lot began and opened on April 26, 1912. Extensive alterations involving the addition of two floors which doubled the amount of space and allowed for an interior redesign in 1922-23.
With the end of the Florida Land Boom in 1926 and the stock market crash in 1929, St. Petersburg banks were struggling. Central National Bank closed on April 12, 1931. The Southern National Bank of St. Petersburg opened in the space previously occupied by Central National Bank on December 14, 1936. They changed their name to First National Bank in 1940. Over the years, many banks with different names would move in and out of the building, the final occupants being Wachovia.
Around 1959, the First National Bank purchased the Pheil Hotel and Theater next door. Between 1960 and 1966, there were many alterations to the buildings with the idea of unifying and modernizing their appearance. A larger garage complex and additional office space was added to the rear, the metal and glass frontal entry awnings were removed, and a metal grille was added to the exterior of the buildings, which were later mocked as being the “cheese grater” buildings in later years due to the alterations. After 1967, the building interiors were merged to create a singular interior flow, though awkwardly due to the floor height difference. Alterations to the interior were ongoing until it’s vacancy in 2006.
It was initially thought that the original exterior was damaged during the alterations, but a study in 1999 showed that much of the original work was still intact:
“At the western end of the building on Central, for example, “Pheil Hotel” is chiseled above the old doorway. Egg-and-dart trim in terra cotta runs along the building’s front. At the old bank, the missing panels reveal giant windows topped with fan lites.” -Architect Tim Clemmons
The Pheil Family, descendants of Abram C. Pheil, still own part of the property, and the reason for the property falling into ruin is because First States Investors, a real estate investment trust, had a lease on the land and buildings until the year 2058. First States had the lease since 2004 when they acquired it through a package deal of about a thousand properties. They have tried numerous ways to get out of the lease of restructure it, going as far as to file a lawsuit in 2010.
Finally in 2016, First State and the Pheil Family agreed on the demolition of the buildings as they had a “prospective buyer” who is considering a mixed-use development on that block, possibly including retail, parking and a hotel, office or residential space. After the city approved their proposal for demolition, the group St. Petersburg Preservation filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the decision.
Just a few months later, the group withdrew the lawsuit after reaching an agreement with the two owners. A vote followed with the city council unanimously voting to deny historic landmark status, paving the way for the buildings’ demolition. While demolition is planned, a date has not been set.