A Sense of Place

It has been said that attachment to a place increases with the distinctiveness of that place. As big-box stores, fast-food chains, and sprawl overtake so many Florida cities, St. Pete has jealously guarded its charm and distinctiveness. And we love it for that. 

Join Preserve the 'Burg as we explore those aspects that make St. Petersburg so unique and lovable.

Video Series

In the new video series "A Sense of Place", Preserve the ‘Burg will explore the city’s unique personality in a series of one-minute videos. The series will offer a glimpse into those places and people that make St. Petersburg special.

Peyton's Sense of Place - An Essay Series by Historian Peyton Jones

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  • 13 Nov 2020 5:44 PM | Anonymous

    by Peyton Jones, Ph.D.

    Bungalow courts are characterized by their unique design - two parallel rows of five or six cottages, facing inward, separated by a wide, hexagon-brick path or communal “court”. They recall an earlier era of housing shortages, when episodic influxes of seasonal and permanent residents strained the available housing stock, and property owners and builders got creative with their spaces. It recalls a time when people valued affordable, multi-family dwellings that promoted neighborliness and community in a proto-suburban setting.

    The 'Burg's bungalow courts are threatened by a downtown beset with new development (click here to read about how PTB helped to save a bungalow on Moffett Court). The remaining courts, seemingly tucked away and commonly only recognized by the lucky few, carry note-worthy stories like Lang Court and Al Lang and Rhoda Court and Rhoda Vogel.

    Home builders in Pasadena, California, inspired by a variety of residential architectural styles and neighborhood designs, from the Spanish patio villas to the vacation cabin in the woods, pioneered the “bungalow court” in 1909. The style gained popularity with buyers and renters who could not afford a detached single-family home (or, as in St. Pete, winter guests who didn’t want the upkeep). The central court, whether a garden or patio or pathway, promoted a sense of community and shared responsibility while maintaining the spirit of American individualism. Click here to learn more about the history of Pasadena's bungalow courts.

    In St. Petersburg, the bungalows of Lang and Rhoda Courts are more than old buildings that tell a story—they’re iconic features of the city’s built-environment, and, combined with the city’s natural endowment, are an essential part of the city’s sense of place.

    Lang Court residents, along with Preserve the 'Burg, secured local historic district designation for their bungalow court in 2014 (click here to read the landmark application). Today, Lang Court, fronting 4th Ave. N. just east of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. St., still retains the feel of bygone St. Petersburg.

    On the southside of downtown, the bungalows within Rhoda Court lack a landmark designation. Preserve the 'Burg is exploring ways to help ensure Rhoda Court, fronting 6th St. and just south of 3rd Ave. S., will also be preserved. When you walk through the court it evokes feelings: nostalgia for an earlier time, but also a sense of place in the here and now—the there, there, as when somewhere says show me St. Petersburg, you can point and say there.

  • 20 Aug 2020 10:43 AM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, Ph.D.

    When he died, in 1995, at the age of 84, William Harvard was one of the most respected architects in Florida. In a career that spanned more than three decades, Harvard, a native Floridian (born in Waldo in 1911) with a penchant for polarizing, Mid-Century Modernist designs, amassed a portfolio that spans more than three decades and includes some of St. Petersburg’s most iconic—and controversial—structures.

    Harvard moved to St. Petersburg, in 1936, just as the city was beginning to economically recover from the Great Depression. After a stint in the Pacific during WWII, which temporarily sidelined a budding homebuilding career, Harvard reopened his firm in the Alhambra Arcade (demolished in 1962) before relocating to an office at 2723 Central Ave. In the early 1950s, he began a decades-long partnership with architect Blanchard Jolly.

    There are many Harvard Jolly Buildings in St. Petersburg, including The Federal Building, Derby Lane, and the Times Building.

    The bandshell at Williams Park, built during the booming 1950s, earned Harvard a reputation for bringing to life innovative-if-controversial projects. Critics derided the blue and green glass canopy and said it looked like the prow of a ship emerging from underground. Later, in the early 1980s, prominent urban designer, Wolf Von Eckerdt, dismissed the inverted pyramid at the pier as nothing more than “architectural acrobatics.” Harvard appreciated that his work elicited strong emotional reactions in people, claiming that he’d prefer someone be repulsed rather than dispassionate. The quality of his work, however, did not go unrecognized by his peers. Only two years after the new bandshell opened, its design received the Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects, and in 1988 it won the “Test of Time” award given by the institute’s Florida chapter.

    When Harvard passed away in late-1995, he was survived by his wife of 53 years, Leila, and their children, two sons, William B. Jr. and Lee, and daughter, Susan McCloskey, all three of whom became professional architects. Harvard’s granddaughter, Maria Rawls, shown in front of the award winning band shell, works as a general contractor for the Harvard Jolly architectural firm, and has been instrumental in helping renovate and restore some of the homes designed by her grandfather.

  • 06 Aug 2020 1:11 PM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, Ph.D.

    August 2020

    With all the fuss about plaques and street murals, I was disappointed when I took my daughter to the newly renovated pier, to the Spa Bistro, and found nothing that commemorated a seminal moment in the local civil rights movement.

    August 1955

    More than a year after the Brown decision, and months before the Montgomery bus boycott introduced the nation to Martin Luther King Jr., a group of civil rights activists calling themselves the Cooperative Citizens Committee, attempted to gain entrance to the racially segregated beach and pool facilities at Spa Beach. They were turned away, and when they protested, the gate attendant summoned a local police officer, who suggested the group head for South Mole (today part of Demens Landing ), a dingy and trash-laden strip of land south of the pier the only spot in town where black residents were allowed to swim.

    The members of the CCC, including Dr. Fred Alsup and J.P. Moses, sued the city for violating their civil rights and launched the local movement to integrate public accommodations.

    Meanwhile, City Manager Ross Windom closed Spa Beach and stationed police officers at the entrance. Over the next four years, even after a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, he and city officials scrambled to preserve segregation. The city council proposed building a new beach site for black residents, at one point suggested reopening North Shore beach on a whites-only basis, and eventually considered razing the pool and beach facilities altogether and replacing them with a domed auditorium. Occasionally, the city quietly reopened Spa only to close it again after black residents conducted more unofficial “swim-ins.”

    With no clear-cut political solution in sight, and unable to continue flouting federal law, the city, in the spring of 1959, finally gave up its fight to keep the beach and pool segregated.

    The protracted struggle over Spa Beach and Pool ignited a broad-scale movement to abolish Jim Crow in all of the city’s public accommodations.

  • 19 Jun 2020 1:28 PM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, Ph.D. 

    This is the fourth and final article in a series on the Bay Plaza Development that was slated to remake downtown in the 1990's. To read the previous three articles, click here: Bittersweet Memories of Bay Plaza Part IBittersweet Memories of Bay Plaza, Part IIBittersweet Memories of Bay Plaza, Part III

    Opposition to the Rescue!

    Opposition to Bay Plaza came from two primary sources: The St. Petersburg Times and historic preservationists (including Preserve the 'Burg!)

    In 1988, a consulting firm hired by the SPT concluded that while the plan for Bay Plaza had its merits, the project was ultimately too big, too expensive, and gave away too much political-

    economic power to a private company. An enthusiastic booster for the Suncoast Dome and an earlier proposal for a shopping plaza at the pier, the Times was not anti-development. But from 1988-1996, in article after editorial after article, it waged a journalistic war against the city’s Master Developer. Neil Elsey’s checkered financial history was a popular topic, and when he stepped down in disgrace, in 1991, the Bay Plaza Co., behind closed doors, accused the local paper of record of character assassination and largely blamed it for Elsey’s failures to land major department store tenants.

    “Save Our St. Petersburg” (aka: SOS) formed in May 1988, only weeks before the first of two major city council votes on final plans for Bay Plaza. Comprised of architects and planners and other

    concerned citizens, many of whom hailed from local preservationist groups such as St. Petersburg Preservation (now Preserve the 'Burg) and Booker Creek Preservation, SOS articulated an alternative vision for growth and development, one that entailed the preservation of historical architecture and a greater emphasis on protecting public resources. SOS and affiliated groups helped save a major section of First Block and led to the relocation of the Perry Snell House (to the USFSP campus) and the city’s oldest building, the Brantley House (to Boyd Hill Nature Preserve). Unable to save the Soreno, the reinvigorated preservation movement worked to educate the public and pressured elected officials to take a more active role in protecting the city’s unique sense of place.

  • 15 Jun 2020 10:29 AM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, P.h. D.

    This is the third article in a series on the Bay Plaza Development that was slated to remake downtown in the 1990's. To read the first two articles, click here: Bittersweet Memories of Bay Plaza Part IBittersweet Memories of Bay Plaza, Part II

    And the Walls Came Tumbling Down

    Even though Bay Plaza never came to fruition, the project left a lasting mark on the landscape. The Bay Plaza project appeared poised for a comeback when, in January 1992, the J.C. Nichols company paid $900k for the Tropicana Hotel (25 Second Street N.) and established a company headquarters there. Later that month, over the fierce objections of preservationists (including Preserve the 'Burg, then-called St. Petersburg Preservation), the 68-year-old Soreno was imploded to make way for a green space along Beach Drive.

    Over the next few years, Nichols, with help from the city, expanded its presence downtown. When several owners refused to sell, the city used its power of eminent domain to condemn their properties and purchase them at market value. [See article below for the impact of eminent domain on one business.] Even as preservationists succeeded in saving several historic buildings, a subject we will cover next week, by 1995 a private real estate development company owned or controlled more than a dozen properties—nearly six blocks of downtown real estate, as shown in the diagram. There was lots of buying going on, but not much building.

    When the project finally went belly up, Nichols owned or co-owned more than a dozen downtown properties and owed tens of millions of dollars to various mortgage-holders, including the city, who eventually retook control of some of the properties. St. Petersburg’s built environment, from office buildings to restaurants to parks to neighborhoods, are the physical markers that distinguish it from other cities. But buildings are also money—capital fixed (temporarily) in space as property. As much as capitalism propels the creation of fixed spaces, it also puts extraordinary pressure on societies to either renew those spaces or scrap them altogether. In many ways, this is the story of urban redevelopment. But residents are not simply passive actors cowed into submission by politicians and greedy capitalists.

    Next week, in the final installment of the Bay Plaza series, we look back at the organized opposition that saved historic buildings and undermined the privatization of downtown.

  • 03 Jun 2020 2:12 PM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, Ph.D. 

    This is the second article in a series on the Bay Plaza Development that was slated to remake downtown in the 1990's. To read the first article, click here: Bittersweet Memories of Bay Plaza

    The Developers

    The ambitious Bay Plaza project was a joint venture between the J.C. Nichols and Elcor Cos. (which together formed Bay Plaza Co.), and the city of St. Petersburg. 

    While the Phoenix-based Elcor was a relatively unknown entity, the J.C. Nichols Co. was a nationally established brand, having gained prominence for building the Country Club Plaza, an exclusive 55-acre shopping district in Kansas City, Mo.

    In the summer of 1989, after three years of negotiations, the Bay Plaza Co. officially became the city’s Master Developer. The Redevelopment Agreement created a public-private partnership, wherein the Bay Plaza Co. agreed to pay roughly seventy five percent of total project costs and to operate and manage three public attractions, the newly renovated pier, the Bayfront Center, and the soon-to-completed Suncoast Dome. For its part, the city agreed to contribute about $40 million dollars and to use its powers of condemnation and expropriation (eminent domain) to help the developers acquire the necessary parcels downtown. 

    Gordon Neil Elsey III was the founder of Elcor and, until 1991, the president of the Bay Plaza Co. A former property manager and investor, Elsey had no experience in commercial real estate development when he arrived in St. Petersburg. But with a taste for expensive suits, a new Jaguar, and celebrity friends like Hall-of-Fame Packers quarterback, Bart Starr, Elsey looked the part of a successful businessman. St. Petersburg Mayor Robert Ulrich, in 1988, referred to Elsey as “a visionary” and an “extraordinarily talented individual.” 

    Because the Redevelopment Agreement gave the Bay Plaza Co. an unprecedented level of autonomy, shielding the developer from the typical forms of public oversight, Elsey was able to keep up a charade for nearly five years. In 1991, facing mounting financial and legal troubles and a rash of bad press, Elsey stepped down and left town without having signed a single tenant. Nevertheless, the project moved forward.

  • 28 May 2020 9:37 AM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, Ph. D.

    While the term “Bay Plaza” means little to most residents, here at Preserve the 'Burg, those words evoke bittersweet memories.

    In 1986, the city of St. Petersburg hired a national real estate conglomerate to serve as the city’s Master Builder and oversee the development of Bay Plaza, a $200 million downtown redevelopment project. With a sprawling shopping and commercial district linked to mid-city by a 3-block-wide pedestrian green along Central Ave., the ambitious Bay Plaza plan envisioned St. Petersburg as the retail and entertainment hub of South-Central Florida.

    But Bay Plaza never came to fruition. An economic downturn in the early 1990s ultimately doomed the project, but not before the demolition of several iconic historic structures, most notably the Soreno Hotel, built in 1924.

    Soreno Hotel - Postcard - ca. 1930-1945    Soreno Hotel - Tampa Bay Times 1/25/92

    When the Bay Plaza project folded for good, in 1996, the developers left behind acres of vacant lots and empty retail spaces, bitter business owners, millions of dollars in unpaid debts, and a galvanized historic preservation movement.

    Over the next few weeks, we are going to revisit the history of Bay Plaza in greater depth. The 1980s marked the dawn of a new era of metropolitan growth politics, when civic leaders who had lost faith in the ability of democratically elected governments to solve urban problems, entrusted the city’s economic future to private enterprise and unregulated markets.

    A more detailed look at the Bay Plaza story will help us better contextualize and understand the wave of controversial revitalization projects that radically transformed the city’s built environment in the Eighties and Nineties.
  • 14 May 2020 1:22 PM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, Ph. D.

    Fifty years ago, retired mobile homeowners in St. Petersburg formed one of the most powerful political movements in Florida.

    It all started in 1961, when newly elected St. Petersburg city council member, Nortney Cox, picked a fight with mobile home owners over taxes. At the time, mobile homes were taxed in the same way as motor vehicles: owners paid an annual $10 license renewal fee. In St. Petersburg, the owners of the majority of the city’s 1,000 mobile homes rented lots in one of 33 parks, and thus paid little-to-nothing in property taxes. 

    For Cox, a small-time homebuilder, the tax system unfairly burdened owners of detached single-family homes (like the kind he built), and over the next three years he single-handedly waged a battle to reclassify mobile homes as real property and squeeze more revenue out of trailer parks.

    Mobile-home owners fought back. While not all were retirees living on fixed incomes, it was the pensioners and social security recipients who, at a meeting in Wilder’s Park (corner of 6th St. and 32nd Ave, formerly Bayou Lake Avenue) on April 2, 1962, organized the Federation of Mobile Home Owners. Within a decade, the FMO counted dozens of chapters and more than 50,000 members statewide.

    The organization first flexed its political muscle when it helped unseat Cox in the 1964 city council elections, and later when it successfully lobbied against a state law that would have forced owners to “tie down” their trailers. The work of the FMO culminated in the early 1970s with the passage of a “Mobile-Home Bill of Rights,” which enshrined into state law protections for mobile-home owners against unscrupulous business practices and crusading city officials.

    When we think about the urban social movements of the postwar era, retirees living in mobile homes don’t usually come to mind. But the FMO, and Florida mobile-home owners more generally, were in the vanguard of metropolitan tax revolts that swept across the nation in the Seventies and Eighties. 

    When Cox failed to get support for reclassifying mobile homes, he tried a variety of other approaches to make mobile-home owners pay, as shown in the Tampa Times article of December 5, 1961.

  • 08 May 2020 12:12 PM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, Ph.D

    “Though April showers may come your way…they bring mowers that cut in May.” (St. Petersburg Times, 1957)

    William E. Beazley, shown center in the photo with his two sons, was born in London, England, in 1875. After graduating from the Royal Academy of Music as a classically trained organist, Beazley emigrated to the United States and eventually settled with his wife, Margaret, in St. Petersburg, in 1925, during the height of the land boom. 

    For nearly a decade, Beazley played the organ at the city’s most prominent entertainment venues, including the La Plaza and Florida Theaters. But when the advent of “talkies” and the onset of depression left him out of work and penniless, Beazley, by then in his mid-fifties, found a new line of work. 

    The musician threw his creative energy into a machine he dubbed the “Whirlwind,” an innovative lawn mower that he had designed and prototyped in his garage. Beazley’s mower was different than its predecessors in that instead of blades that rotated vertically, the Whirlwind featured adjustable, horizontally spinning blades powered by a small electric motor. Lightweight enough for a child to handle, the Whirlwind easily cut a 13-inch swath through tall weeds and thick Florida turf.

    After securing a patent for his rotary blade, the Beazley Power Mower Co. opened up shop at 1906 3rd Ave. S., and within a few years, Whirlwinds were cutting grass around the world, from the Panama Canal Zone to England, from Maine to Cuba. When William passed away in 1943, Margaret, along with her four children, operated the company until her death in 1964. 

    Beazley’s career straddled two historical eras. While post-WWII suburbanization created an ever-expanding market for lawn mowers, the related processes of urban renewal and redevelopment led to the demolition of the La Plaza and Florida Theaters and the destruction of a certain sense of place.

  • 28 Apr 2020 9:28 AM | Anonymous

    By Peyton Jones, Ph.D.

    More than one hundred years ago, anti-saloon sentiment animated local politics like no other issue, and on June 2, 1913, in a special referendum, Pinellas County residents voted 796 to 696 in favor of outlawing saloons and liquor sales for two years. In St. Petersburg, the “dry” votes outnumbered “wet” votes by a single ballot. 

    However, the “dry” victory was less an expression of widespread anti-saloonism and more a testament to the organizational prowess of unenfranchised middle and upper-class white women in St. Petersburg. Indeed, the prohibition of alcohol was part of a broader progressive agenda, and it was the local branch of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union who, for years, led the charge against saloons.

    In the lead up to the 1913 referendum, the W.T.C.U. regularly published opinion-editorials excoriating the liquor interests and held rallies where national speakers decried the social evils of strong drink. On voting day, W.C.T.U. members handed out ice-cold lemonade at every precinct and held a prayer vigil at Grace Baptist Church, and after the “dry” vote carried the day, the organization sponsored “ratification and jollification” parties.

    To be sure, there was no shortage of spirits for the well-to-do and politically connected, especially with the opening of membership-only clubs and “wet” Tampa nearby.  

    Cartoon below from the St. Petersburg Times, July 3, 1913.

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