Information compiled by PTB volunteer, Lou Kneeshaw
The role of women in St. Petersburg's history has often been overshadowed by the men that they worked alongside. But from the very beginning of the Sunshine City, when Sarah Williams played a role in persuading Peter Demens to bring the Orange Belt Railroad to what is today downtown St. Petersburg, instead of what is now modern-day Gulfport, the story of St. Petersburg has been driven in large part by women. Below are just a few of the names you should know.
C. Bette Wimbish
C. Bette Wimbish was one of the leading African American woman activists in Florida promoting the desegregation of schools and civil equality. She graduated from Booker T. Washington High School in Tampa, Florida, and soon applied for school at the University of Pennsylvania. However, Wimbish was turned down as a result of her race. Discouraged but determined, Wimbish began working towards a degree at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for Negroes, which is now known as Florida A&M. She was the first African American on the St. Petersburg City Council. As well as being the first African American to hold a modern elected office in the Tampa Bay area, Wimbish was also the first African American female lawyer in Pinellas County, Florida.
Flora Wylie spent her lifetime making St. Pete a more beautiful city. Flora was the first woman to serve on St. Petersburg’s Planning Board in 1928 and was a founding member of the St. Petersburg Garden Club. Flora had a love of exotic plants and shrubs. Flora and her husband Walter built a home with lush tropical gardens at 1400 Beach Drive in Old Northeast in 1922. It was a replica of an Italian villa they had seen when they visited Milan. She remained a huge proponent of the city parklands until her passing in 1965. In May 1962, Waterfront Park No. 3 was renamed Flora Wylie Park. Flora Wylie Park begins where Coffee Pot Bayou curves into North Shore Drive and extends from 18th to 13th Ave S.
Katherine Bell Tippetts
Privately educated, fluent in five languages, and a published author, Katherine Tippetts arrived in St. Petersburg with her husband and four children in 1902. But it was her path after her husband’s death in 1909 where she made her contribution. Historian Ray Arsenault once described Katherine Tippetts as “the most remarkable woman in St. Pete.” After her husband’s death, she took over the operations of the downtown Belmont Hotel and the couple’s other real estate holdings.
As a savvy businesswoman with extensive experience in public affairs, she also was the first woman to run for the Florida Legislature. Tippetts placed second in that race, but the loss didn’t stop her. Instead, she continued working tirelessly to protect what was special about St. Petersburg, and Florida as a whole. She accomplished this through leadership roles in groups ranging from the Woman’s Town Improvement Association and the Florida Federation of Women's Clubs to the YWCA and American Forestry Association.
Tippetts’ most enduring legacy is the St. Petersburg Audubon Society (SPAS). She founded and directly presided over the organization for 31 years, helping to lead the movement to preserve and protect the environment. Concerned about the impact of growth on natural resources, she fought to legislate protections for wildlife and plants in Florida and beyond, from pelicans, robins, and the pied-billed grebe to a swath of the Everglades. Locally, this lobby produced more than ten bird sanctuaries by 1920 in Pinellas County alone. The Audubon Society also was instrumental in the 1912 establishment of the Florida Fish & Game Commission and passage of the Migratory Bird Act of 1913.
Jennie Hall was a public school teacher and moved to St. Petersburg in 1922 from Butte, Montana. St. Petersburg was a fully segregated city as were the majority of southern cities. Swimming pools were considered as popular and all-American as movies, but African Americans, particularly in the south, were largely excluded from using public swimming areas.
In 1953, as an 85-year old retiree, Hall met with the City Council and wrote a $10,000 check after having become frustrated at the city's lack of progress in building a "Negro" pool. With an additional $15,000 from Ms. Hall for a total donation of $25,000, a big share of her life savings, this instigated a $35,000 matching appropriation by the City. The pool was dedicated in the Spring of 1954. Ms. Hall passed away just one year later, on April 3, 1955. Jennie Hall Pool remained segregated until 1959 when the city opened its public pools and beaches to people of all races.
Jennie Hall Pool was the city's only African American pool in St. Petersburg. Ms. Hall also gave $450 towards the college education of an 18-year-old African American girl who wrote a three-page letter thanking her for the swimming pool donation. Another contribution to the development of the African American community was a $500 check to an African American Woman’s club which enabled renovation of their club building. For these contributions, Ms. Hall received a citation for outstanding community service. In 2012, city leaders designated the Jennie Hall Pool as a historic landmark. The pool is located at 1025 26th St S in St. Petersburg.
Dr. Johnnie Ruth Clarke
Dr. Johnnie Ruth Clarke was an American activist, teacher, and humanitarian.She was a participating member of many different societies and has been credited as the first African-American to obtain a doctorate from the University of Florida's College of Education.
Johnnie Ruth Clarke obtained her bachelor's degree from Florida A&M University in Social Science and then went on to receive a master's degree from Fisk University.In 1966, Clarke became the first African American to obtain a doctorate from any Florida public university and in particular the University of Florida College of Education. Clarke taught in the Pinellas County Public School System, as well as at Bethune-Cookman College and Florida A&M University. Dr. Clarke served as dean of Gibbs Junior College in the 1950s, and as assistant dean of academic affairs at St. Petersburg Junior College in the 1960s. To honor her commitment to students and the community, St. Petersburg College established an academic scholarship in her name. Also, the Johnnie Ruth Clarke Health Center was named after her.
Margaret Acheson Stuart
Margaret Acheson Stuart was raised in New York City but the family established winter residence in St. Petersburg and she eventually settled in the area.
Margaret proposed the Museum of Fine Arts to the city of St. Petersburg in 1961. She contributed $150,000 for a building and $1 million for an endowment fund. In early 1970, Mrs. Stuart donated $300,000 for a new auditorium and sculpture garden. The City of St. Petersburg donated the land. By the mid-1980s a second floor was added to accommodate its growing art collection. The renovations and addition were finished in 1989. On February 23, 2008, a $21 million addition - the Hazel Hough Wing - had its grand opening. Today the museum's collection includes works by Monet, Cezanne, Vigee-LeBrun, Tiffany, Rodin, Gauguin, Steuben, and Renoir. Stuart refused to place her name on the museum or charge admission, insisting she wanted all people to be able to enjoy the cultural resource. Said Stuart during the planning phase of the museum: "If one child has a better life because he visited our museum, it will be worthwhile."
Fannye Ayer Ponder
Coming to the Sunshine City from her native Ocala with her husband in 1925, Fannye Ponder was an educator, organizer and a social and civic leader in St. Pete for more than 40 years. A graduate of Florida A&M, Ponder taught at Gibbs High School for 20 years, organized the St. Petersburg Metropolitan Section of the NCNW (National Council of Negro Women) as well as the City Federation of Colored Women’s Clubs. She worked as a Republican committeewoman and helped build two community buildings in the black community: the Council House that bears her name and the Melrose Clubhouse. Ponder directed her limitless energy toward the advancement of women on the local, state and national levels, working alongside such prominent activists as Dr. Bethune and First Lady of the United States Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1972, in recognition of her accomplishments for more than 40 years of service to her community and the nation, then St. Pete Mayor Herman Goldner declared a day in June of that year as Fannye Ayer Ponder Day. She passed away on May 31, 1982, but her legacy still lives.
Ponder’s legacy is that of someone who worked for women’s rights, believed in equality and worked to change the lives of those less fortunate. She was politically astute, a patriotic and servant leader, once selling thousands of U.S. Savings Bonds during World War II, totaling $85,000 in one single night in Miami. It was Ponder who founded the local NCNW chapter in 1942 — properly called the St. Petersburg Metropolitan Section — to develop "competent and courageous leadership" among African-American women. During World War II, she sold thousands of dollars in war bonds to help build a U.S. Merchant Marine Liberty ship, the SS Harriet Tubman, the first to honor an African-American woman. She and her mentor, Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the NCNW and what would become Bethune-Cookman University, had tea at the White House with three first ladies, Eleanor Roosevelt, Bess Truman and Mamie Eisenhower. In St. Petersburg, Ponder was the force behind the prime site for political, educational, social and cultural gatherings for African-Americans at a time when racial segregation barred them from public facilities, such as beaches, libraries and swimming pools.
Mary Wheeler Eaton
As owner of one of the city’s largest citrus groves, Mary Wheeler Eaton was well established in St. Pete’s business community, but her passion for the Sunshine City has helped celebrate our city’s history for generations. In 1920, Eaton and a number of pioneer families created the St. Petersburg Memorial Historical Society to preserve the young city’s history. Eventually Eaton convinced the Mayor and City Council to give the historical society a vacant building on the Pier Approach and the St. Petersburg Museum of History was born. The oldest museum in Pinellas County, the St. Petersburg Museum of History was formerly known as the St. Petersburg Memorial Historical Society when it first opened its doors to the adoring public in 1921. The Society started collecting the different artifacts, archival documents, photographs, and specimens of natural history that depicted the movement of the region towards 20th century development and progress. It was through the unrelenting effort and steely determination of Mary Wheeler Eaton and her contemporaries that the Society was able to amass considerable historical wealth that has become the foundation of the present-day Museum. In 1930, after Mary Eaton’s death, The Memorial Historical Society opened what would become the first incarnation of the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
Rosalie Peck was the youngest of 10 children. Raised in St. Petersburg, she attended local all-black schools - Jordan Elementary and Gibbs High School. After being turned away from a local business school because of her race she traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend Cortez Peters Business College. Fifteen years after graduating from Gibbs High School, Rosalie was chosen by the Ambassador Club, along with Frankie Howard to promote integration by attending the all-white St. Petersburg Junior College (today’s St. Petersburg College) in 1961. Years later, Peck recalled both the anxiety and fear she felt, but knew after her first day of classes that she was, as she said, “in my element.” Her confidence eventually led her to Bethune-Cookman College and then to Atlanta University for her master’s degree followed by a successful social work career. Peck co-authored the excellent book, St. Petersburg’s Historic 22nd Street South, along with Jon Wilson.
Shirley Fry Irvin
You can place Shirley Fry’s name alongside Maureen Connolly, Margaret Court, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Doris Hart, Billie Jean King, Martina Navaratilova, and Serena Williams. Fry is one of only 10 female players in history to win at least one of each of the majors in singles. Along with Court, Hart, Navratilova, and Serena and Venus Williams, Fry is one of only six players in history to also win a women’s doubles title at each major tournament.
From 1951 to 1957 she won singles championships in Australia, Paris, London, and New York, and won another 13 major championships in both doubles and mixed doubles. She was a singles finalist on four occasions and a doubles and mixed doubles finalist eleven more times. Fry was ranked in the world Top 10 nine times (1946-1956), including the No. 1 position in 1956. She was among America’s Top 10 players 13 straight years, 1944-1956. Off the major tournament circuit, Fry was the Italian Nationals doubles champion in 1951 and a mixed doubles finalist that same year. Fry played for the United States in Wightman Cup in 1949, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1955, and 1956, compiling a 10-2 career record. She is the champion of the 1951 French Open, 1956 Wimbledon, 1956 US Open, and the1957 Australian Open.
Fry is just one of 15 people to have won the career Grand Slam. Fry won 17 major championships including the French Open, Australian Open and Wimbleton in 1956. Upon her retirement, Fry moved to St. Petersburg, ostensibly to bask in warmer climates. She worked in the advertising department of the St. Petersburg Times.
Who did we miss? We know there are lots of influential women we didn't cover. Is there someone in particular you'd like us to feature? Let us know! Write to: email@example.com
As Preserve the ‘Burg works to save the unusual Shell Dash Cottage, let’s take a look back at some of the more prominent landmarks St. Petersburg has lost over the years, starting with the building whose demolition gave rise to the organization now known as Preserve the ‘Burg:
American Bank and Trust
The American Bank and Trust opened on September 13, 1913. Located at 340 Central Avenue (where today’s BB&T building now stands) it featured a Grecian granite facade and stately columns. So many customers came through the immense bronze doors on opening day that the bank ran out of deposit slips and the clerks had to write on sheets of sandpaper! The first floor had 40,500 feet of space, more than any other bank in South Florida at that time. The woodwork was quarter sawed oak with a greenish gray tinge and the floor was covered with white and colored tile. In 1977, the newly formed St. Petersburg Historic Preservation Group (later named St. Petersburg Preservation and now, Preserve the ‘Burg) unsuccessfully attempted to block the demolition of the building. A small portion of the historic structure remains intact: two of the front columns were saved and are now part of the Veterans Memorial in Williams Park, pictured below.
The Soreno opened on New Year’s Day, 1924. This 300 room waterfront hotel was designed in a subdued Mediterranean Revival style by Atlanta architect G. L. Preacher. Billed as the city’s first million dollar hotel, the Soreno Hotel later became a symbol of the burgeoning historic preservation movement in St. Petersburg. Its demolition, on January 25, 1992, as part of the planned Bay Plaza redevelopment of downtown, was followed just six months later by the successful reopening of the renovated Vinoy Hotel. These two events painted the city’s choices in stark relief: preserve those places that make St. Petersburg special, or let them be destroyed for the tenuous promise of growth. The reopening of the Vinoy Hotel proved to be a turning point for downtown; ushering in a period of renaissance and rebirth that we are still enjoying today. The demolition of the Soreno Hotel was filmed for use in the movie Lethal Weapon III, but was ultimately only shown in the credits. You can watch a Youtube video of that sad day here. And read a detailed history of how the Vinoy was saved from demolition in the Old Northeast Journal, here.
Located on 2nd Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue N the mission-style Garden Cafeteria, also known as the Piano Exchange building, was built in 1923 and was originally used as The First Baptist Tabernacle. In the 1930s the church became an auto garage and then in 1934 morphed into a tropical-style cafeteria. Known for the stunning tropical murals painted by WPA artist George Snow Hill, the cafeteria was last used in the late 1970s. Later, it became the Piano Exchange. It was demolished in 2012 for a parking lot for the Sundial shopping complex across the street.
The Florida Theater opened in September 1926 with twenty-three hundred seats, nine dressing rooms, a rooftop garden, and towering interior walls covered with the suits of Spanish armor, tapestries, and other works of pseudo-Renaissance elegance. Located on 5th Street at 1st Avenue South, The Florida Theater was a masterpiece of 1920’s style garishness. “The King”, Elvis Presley, performed there on August 7, 1956.The next day’s edition of the St. Petersburg Times described his performance: “He hit St. Petersburg with the effect of a small H-bomb.”
During the Florida Theater’s demolition in 1968, two workers were nearly killed when an 80-foot crane crashed to the ground. "Downtown St. Petersburg has been the scene of a symbolic battle -- the Florida Theatre vs. the great metal fist of the Cuyohaga Wrecking Co.," the Times wrote. The theater was so solid “the wrecker lost many attempts to remove it, because it was so well built and in such fine condition," a city report noted. The site became a parking lot.
Built by E. H. Lewis in 1917 to look like a Southern plantation house, the Colonial was one of the city’s earliest steel-frame buildings. Built in 1921 with 40 rooms, by 1948 it had expanded to 64 rooms. During WWII, following in the footsteps of most hotels across the state, the hotel was leased to the Army for a Basic Training Center. It was demolished in 2006 to make way for the Ovation condominiums located at 180 Beach Drive NE.
This five-story hotel was built in the late 1890’s by C.S. Hunt and was located at 226 4th Ave N. Known for its graceful tropical gardens and colorful murals by local artist Mark Dixon Dodd, the hotel later became an antique mall with as many as 45 antique dealers. At one time it was leased by the Pinellas School Board and housed the Women’s Job Corp. It closed in 1995 and was demolished two years later to make way for 27 townhouses.
This monumental theater opened on March 8, 1913 with a seating capacity of 1,800 in a town of only 6,000 residents. Located at the corner of Fifth Street and Central Avenue, the huge Mediterranean Revival style structure was reputed to have the largest stage south of Atlanta. For many years it was the tallest building in St. Petersburg. Built by George S. Gandy (of bridge fame) it was known as Gandy’s White Elephant because it was thought that the large theater would lose money. Gandy was one of Philadelphia’s leading building contractors before moving to St. Petersburg in 1903. In 1913 the structure cost more than $150,000 to build. It offered stage shows featuring major performers such as Tom Mix, Sophie Tucker and Anna Pavlova. It was demolished between 1955-1957 to make way for downtown parking.
Originally named the National Bank of St. Petersburg, this was the third bank organized in the city. A lot was purchased on the southwest corner of Central Avenue and 4th Street and an office was constructed that opened on July 1, 1905. In 1910, the name was changed to Central National Bank. Over the years, many banks with different names would move in and out of the building. In 2016, Preserve the 'Burg unsuccessfully fought the demolition of the Central National Bank and the Pheil Hotel next door. The now empty lot is slated to hold the city's tallest building, construction on which is anticipated to begin in 2020.
This towering eleven-story, 108 room structure was built by Abram Pheil, St. Petersburg mayor in 1912 and 1913. Pheil accompanied pilot Tony Jannus as the first commercial airline passenger on the famous 1914 Benoist flight from St. Petersburg to Tampa. At the time it was built, the Pheil Hotel was the tallest building in the city and featured an ornate ground floor theater with an unusual feature: patrons entered the theater from the front, walking underneath the movie screen (because theater fires often started in the projection room, the owners felt like this was a safer design!) The hotel was conceived in 1916 to serve the increasing tourism demand, however the 1917 to 1918 federal construction moratorium caused by World War I hampered its construction. Abram Pheil died in November 1922, more than a year before his long awaited building was finished.This hotel had its grand opening on Halloween, October 31, 1924.
Although the Pheil Hotel had been altered over time (most notably by the addition of an aluminum facade added in the 1960s, which earned it the nickname of the Cheese Grater), it still retained significant exterior architectural integrity and was clearly readable as an historic structure. City Council council unanimously voted to deny Preserve the ‘Burg’s application for local historic landmark designation, paving the way for the demolition of both the Pheil Hotel and the neighboring Central National Bank in 2016.
The Floronton was located at First Avenue N and 2nd Street, roughly where the new Hyatt Place hotel is located now. It was built in 1910 by Mary Purnell to serve a growing tourist trade. St. Petersburg’s first all-masonry hotel, during WWII it was used by the US Army Air Corp. Following the war, the hotel was sold and renamed the Toffenetti Hotel in the mid 1950’s (Darlo Toffenetti purchased the hotel in 1955 from Mrs. Florence Robinson) By 1973, the hotel was once again sold. For the next twelve years it was called the Tropicana Hotel. In 1986, after major renovations and the removal of the porch and entryway columns, it was converted into office spaces and used by the Bay Plaza Corporation as its headquarters during their planned redevelopment of downtown. Every other building on the block was demolished by the Bay Plaza Corporation, but the Floronton remained as a holdout until its recent demolition to make way for the One Condominium tower.
In 1925, pharmacist James Earl "Doc" Webb, bought a small drug store in Saint Petersburg, renaming it "Webb's Cut Rate Drug Store” in the face of the looming economic depression. Webb’s philosophy of "Stack it high and sell it cheap" helped him thrive as other businesses around him failed in the Great Depression. The “World’s Most Unusual Drugstore” eventually expanded to more than seventy stores that spanned seven blocks. From 2nd Avenue South down to 4th Avenue South, his empire covered the area between 7th to 10th Street. A forerunner to the shopping center, Webb’s City included a floral shop, a bakery, a grocery store, a meat market, a beauty salon, a travel agency, a hardware store, a gift shop, clothing emporiums, several coffee shops and soda fountains, a cafeteria, and a drugstore. At its peak, Webb employed a staff of more than 1,200 to serve an average 60,000 customers a day.
Not one to rest on low prices alone, Doc mastered the promotional gimmick. He shot the Flying Zacchinis out of a cannon in the parking lot, sold dollar bills for ninety-five cents (a limited time offer), and exhibited mermaids, chimp acts, and baseball playing ducks. And you could watch it all while enjoying a breakfast for just two cents! Perhaps his most enduring contribution was the The Express Check-Out Line (10 Items or Less), which Doc’s son Jim claims he invented.
As St. Pete entered a period of decline in the 1970s, the company went bankrupt by 1979 and "The World's Most Unusual Drug Store" closed its doors for good. It was fully demolished by 1984. A small shopping center called Webb’s Plaza is the only hint of the behemoth that once occupied the space near today’s Tropicana Field.
Thanks to PTB Member and Volunteer Lou Kneeshaw for his diligent research on the 11 We Lost.
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