11 We Lost: Buildings St. Pete Should Have Saved

02 Jun 2020 12:46 PM | Anonymous

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 Hotel

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.

The Garden Cafeteria

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

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. 

The Colonial Inn

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.  

The Huntington Hotel

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. 

The La Plaza Theater

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. 

Central National Bank

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. 

The Pheil Hotel 

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 Hotel

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. 

Webb’s City 

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. 

Preserve the 'Burg works to preserve the unique places in St. Petersburg that keep our city special. Join our movement by becoming a member, and help us Keep St. Pete Special!

Thanks to PTB Member and Volunteer Lou Kneeshaw for his diligent research on the 11 We Lost. 

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Preserve the 'Burg
P.O. Box 838
St. Petersburg, FL 33731
(727) 824-7802
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