Our tagline is “Keep St. Pete Special.” It’s an effective earworm that has seeped into the local discourse. Residents and politicians often repeat variations of this mantra, telling audiences that we “can’t lose sight of what made St. Pete special in the first place.” Indeed, at a forum hosted last year by the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, mayor Ken Welch related the sentiment of one of his constituents who asked him if we’re “maybe loving St. Pete to death.”
I was thinking about St. Pete’s “specialness” during a recent lunch at the historic Vinoy Hotel. Attendees heard from new owners Bryan and Shanna Glazer about renovations to the downtown icon while taking in the charm and grandeur of the nearly 100-year-old building, listening intently about how the hotel is an economic anchor for downtown.
Not mentioned, however, were the preservationists who fought to keep the building from being torn down in the 1980s.
Among the most opulent destination hotels in a city that made its bones on the tourist trade and “year-round sunshine,” the Mediterranean Revival style hotel designed by Henry Taylor in 1925 and built for Aymer Vinoy Laughner, was shuttered in the 1970s and slated for demolition.
Many residents and local leaders – not unlike today – were indifferent. Letters to the Saint Pete Times editorial board called for the the building be torn down. Efforts to save it would be "a waste."
Local activists and a nascent Preserve the ‘Burg, however, led a lengthy fight to save the hotel, which is today lauded on tourist brochures, its history artfully detailed on its website. Indeed, it may be the city’s most recognizable landmark.
The ‘Burg has been lavished with praise lately. Some call it Florida’s best small town, while others have tried to pinpoint what, exactly, led to the Sunshine City’s current success. Nothing I’ve read, however, mentions the city’s historic structures or the work that preservations have done to maintain the city’s unique character.
There is a special, outlier charm to this gulf coast city of just over a quarter of a million people. St. Pete has for almost its entire existence marketed itself as the the retiree’s “Florida Dream.”
Today, the city’s 20-plus blocks of waterfront parks, envisioned in 1910 when many of Florida’s urban waterfronts were used mostly for commercial endeavors, set it apart from Florida’s beach towns and South Florida’s stucco “condo canyons.” A popular t-shirt here reads “don’t Lauderdale My St. Pete.” Meanwhile, historic Central Avenue, nearly 40 blocks of densely packed independent retail, bars, galleries and restaurants mostly occupying pre-1970s commercial buildings, has attracted a new wave of creative professionals, artists, millennials and Gen-Z residents seeking St. Pete’s special something.
For a while though, St. Pete almost lost its shine.
Like a lot of preservation “societies,” St. Petersburg Preservation (today re-branded as Preserve the ‘Burg) found its footing in the wake of inner center-city devastation and interstate expansion.
Despite its sprawling waterfront parks, wide sidewalks, historic craftsman bungalows, and Central Avenue, which today features more than 100 retail shops and restaurants, St. Pete’s in-town population cratered in the 1970s while the suburbs boomed. The lure of the recently opened Tyrone Square Mall, with its ample parking and air-conditioned shops, left downtown St. Pete in freefall. The 1926 Florida Theatre, the last of St. Pete’s majestic movie palaces, was demolished in 1967; the iconic Vinoy Hotel shuttered in 1974.
By 1980, two interstate “spurs” – I-I75 and I-375 - had bifurcated St. Pete, exacerbating long-standing geographic racial segregation that further confined Black residents to the city’s south end, and creating a barrier wall around historic first-ring suburbs.
As lower-income seniors lingered in downtown’s 1920s era tourist hotels and efficiencies-turned assisted living facilities, legendary late night TV host Johnny Carson poured salt on the wound, dubbing St. Pete “God’s waiting room” on national TV.
But in 1977, with interstate columns approaching in the distance, a small group of residents marched to protest the demolition of yet another downtown landmark – this time the 1913 American Bank & Trust building on the 300 block of Central Ave. While they didn’t win that fight – the façade is now part of a veteran’s memorial while 300 Central is home to a nondescript glass tower – the seeds of today’s Preserve the ‘Burg were planted.
Since then, there have been significant wins and, of course, many losses, and the organization itself has ebbed and flowed as members of its mostly-volunteer board have rotated in and out over the last 45 years.
One thing, however, has remained consistent: Preservation in St. Pete works.
As the fight for the Vinoy continued into the early 1990s, in 1980, the City of St. Petersburg demolished 14 homes in Roser Park, a 1920s-era streetcar suburb that by the 1980s was staring down highway expansion and the growth of a nearby hospital. With help from Preserve the ‘Burg, the neighborhood was designated as the city’s first local historic district in 1987. Average sales price for a home in the Roser Park Historic District in the last 12 months? Just over $400,000.
In the mid-2000s, Preserve the ‘Burg initiated and won historic landmark designations for several buildings on Central Avenue’s “First Block,” a collection of some of St. Pete’s oldest commercial structures. Today, the area is a thriving entertainment district, mobbed by thousands of locals and tourists every weekend, who are attracted to the block’s walkability and unique setting.
Around 2009, Preserve the ‘Burg filed a third-party historic designation for the Crislip Arcade. The owner had evicted his tenants and was planning to demolish the building. Plans for a condo tower were waiting in the wings. With the help of City Council member Leslie Curran and pressure from Preserve the ‘Burg, the block was saved. For several years, all anyone heard about when you mentioned St. Pete was “The 600 Block.” That one small block of old, low-rise buildings jumpstarted Central Avenue’s redevelopment.
If anyone were to suggest today that the Vinoy should be demolished or that homes in Roser Park should be torn down or that First Block should be leveled, they would be laughed out of the city.
Or would they?
St. Pete’s population surged 152% from 1910 through the end of the 1920s. Today, St. Pete is experiencing one of the biggest development booms in recent memory as people are again discovering the special character of the “Sunshine City.” A recent report from the Downtown Partnership predicts a 46% increase in residential units in the downtown core. That’s on top of a 40% jump from 2010 to 2014.
While development is both needed and inevitable, Preserve the ‘Burg is working to quantify the “specialness” embodied in the city’s historic architecture. We know that Central Avenue’s smaller storefronts make it more economically feasible for small business and attractive for creative startups, that the “human scale” design of older neighborhoods make them more pedestrian friendly, and that those 1920s-era tourist hotels and efficiencies are often the most affordable rental units in an increasingly unaffordable city.
And, for a town whose history is rooted in tourism, we also know that historic resources are often what differentiates one city from another, a built-in marketing tool attracting residents searching for something a little different.
As we navigate this new era of growth and development, let’s hope those seeking something special in St. Pete can still find what they’re searching for. - M.L.
An earlier version of this article appeared in the Spring 2022 edition of the Florida Preservationist.