Why has there been a cat on this Tampa roof for 70 years?

Florida wonder.Florida wonder. [ Lisa Merklin ]

Editor’s Note: Welcome back to Florida Wonders, a series of Tampa Bay Times journalists answering reader questions. After seeing a popular post about it on Facebook, Tampas Jessica Slack asked about the backstory of a cat on the roof of a building in Seminole Heights that locals have marveled at for decades. We investigated where it came from and why it’s still there.

The cat has been an object of fascination and joy for generations.

Jennifer Wrightsman, now 43, remembers seeing it on her way to her grandmother’s house on weekends in the early 80s. Her mother pointed this out every time they came by and now she’s doing the same with her own 3 and 7 year old boys.

A ceramic cat can be seen on the roof of the Adams and Jennings funeral home in Tampa.A ceramic cat can be seen on the roof of the Adams and Jennings funeral home in Tampa. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

The cat – white, ceramic, and vaguely scared-looking – seems to be making its way to the roof of the Adams & Jennings Funeral Home at 6900 N Nebraska Ave. to pave the way, as has been the case almost continuously for seven decades.

For some, the cat is an anchor sunk in memory. They see it now and find their way back to a car trip in 30 or maybe 60 years and stare out the window. It’s a small league for Dick Granade in the 1950s. For Steve Saunders, it’s the weekly trip to pick up his grandmother on her way to church in the mid-1960s. Kaye Osteen moved from Temple Terrace to Hillsborough High School in 1972.

“We’d all check every day,” said Osteen, “to make sure it was still there.”

The cat is still there.

It’s also literally anchored on the roof of the funeral home. The paws have posts that protrude into the roof and are fastened with a bolt. There’s also a braided stainless steel safety lanyard that winds around an ankle, explained a man who, in response to popular demand, reattached the cat after it briefly disappeared in 2007.

Once upon a time there were two cats on the roof, one black and one white. They were housed there around 1948 by John Gennaro, who ran an antique shop and tea room with his cat-loving wife in the building that became a funeral home in 1962. That’s according to Earl Polk, who worked at Adams & Jennings as a teenager in the 1970s and has returned to work as a companion since retiring from a career in the federal government.

Ceramic cat on the roof of the Adams and Jennings funeral home.Ceramic cat on the roof of the Adams and Jennings funeral home. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

“When Gennaro and his wife sold the building to Jennings, they took the black cat with them,” Polk said. “Apparently they put it on the roof of their Bradenton house.”

Later in life, it is said, Gennaro could no longer live alone, and he and the black cat lived with a relative in Maryland. There the black cat froze on the roof and crashed.

But the white cat stayed on the roof in Tampa, a neighborhood icon. It came down briefly in 1990 when a new roof was installed. Then it was demolished in 2007 when the original Adams & Jennings building was demolished.

At this point, Stacy Adams, who had followed her father Mike Adams into the funeral home, planned to retire the cat and put it in a nice shade box to display indoors. The fans of the cat would not let that happen.

“Too many people came by asking about it,” said Adams.

“People passed in the middle of funerals while I was parking cars. Hey man, where’s the cat?” Polk said.

So Adams had a friend who works in ceramics clean up the cat and repair damage to the tail. It was mounted on the roof of the new Adams & Jennings building. The cat was then added to the Adams & Jennings logo on the website and business cards, although it doesn’t have a name yet.

A few years ago, Adams & Jennings was bought by the Stonemor Corporation, which left the cat in place.

“You were very aware of this,” said Adams.

Of course, none of this explains how a fragile china cat survived being lashed by storms and the merciless Florida sun for the duration of 13 presidential administrations. That part is kind of a miracle.

Funeral homes are not places usually associated with permanence or the indestructibility of physical form. They remind you of the exact opposite. The cat is likely not immortal, but it is evidence that some things are taking a lot longer than expected.

For now, the cat persists, and with it, another Tampa tradition that Polk remembers on his first foray into the funeral home as a teenager.

“We still get a lot of calls from people who drive by and want us to know there is a cat on the roof,” he said.

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