St. Petersburg’s long-dormant North Ward Secondary School building, on 11th Avenue North at 4th Street, is about to get a new lease on life.
Built in 1914, the mission-style structure hadn’t been used as a school in years. A decade ago, North Ward was deemed superfluous to needs and shuttered by the Pinellas County School Board, and put on the market. In 2014, real estate investor Jonathan Daou and his Northward Holdings, LLC bought the North Ward property for $1.7 million. Daou spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in renovations.
The new tenant in the anchor spot is Grand Hacienda, a Mexican restaurant with an already-successful location on St. Petersburg Beach. Owners are shooting for a soft opening by the week of May 5 – Cinco de Mayo.
“We hope to open before, but you never know,” says Claudia Johnson, one of several partners in Grand Hacienda. “We’re already done with everything.”
The owners, Johnson says, are “four friends, three of us are Hispanic, and we all love Mexican culture; we wanted to bring a little bit of Mexico to St. Petersburg. So you don’t need to fly – whenever you come in, you’re in Mexico.”
Known as Monarca (“Monarch”) when it opened on Gulf Boulevard four years ago, Grand Hacienda (the name was changed in 2017) is notable for its hand-carved wooden booths, and generous use of traditional Mexican calabria tiles, hand-made tin art and other crafts imported from South of the Border.
The colorful tiles, explains Johnson, who is of Mexican descent, “have been a hallmark of Mexico since the arrival of the Spanish 350 years ago. You will see it in Spain, and in Columbia. You’ll see it in many colonies that were part of the Spanish empire at some point. But we were the longest, and the largest.”
The 4th Street location, which will include an outdoor patio with seating for 50, covers 3,600 square feet, three times larger than the beach restaurant. Unlike its Gulfside partner, the new Grand Hacienda has a full liquor license – the better for serving margaritas, tableside, from a hand-pushed cart.
The authentic fare is prepared by Mexican chefs – and the menu, according to Johnson, is being enlarged and expanded for the new location. The bigger menu will eventually be applied to the beach location as well.
Tampa-based Majesty Title Services recently moved into a small office on the second floor of the former North Ward building.
Preserve the Burg, formerly St. Pete Preservation, argued unsuccessfully that the North Ward building be given an historical designation.
“We’re happy to see that the building’s at least being re-used again,” vice president Peter Belmont says. “That’s always the ultimate goal.”
At least it wasn’t taken over by a fast-food chain, he adds. “These are the type of buildings that attract local businesses.”