As is my habit, I was walking on the concrete path near the Bay off North Shore Drive NE, when I came upon a familiar looking green bench. The bench beckoned me to sit for a while, and as I sat in the shade of a large, old oak tree, I was reminded of the long-ago day when I had a chance meeting with an old man. It turned out he had, as a boy, witnessed the first train of the Orange Belt Railway chug into the budding village of St. Petersburg in 1888. Although the old man indicated he would like to meet with me again, it wasn’t meant to be. That encounter did, however, foster a lifelong interest in the history of St. Petersburg.
As I sat on the bench and stared out at the rubble of what was once the iconic St. Petersburg Pier and its inverted pyramid…the view made me reflect on the history of the five different piers that have extended from the city’s shoreline near Spa Beach.
The history of St. Petersburg’s piers began in 1889, when Peter Demens, in order to fulfill his contract with John Williams, extended his railway eastward and built the Railway Pier. This structure reached out into the Bay, allowing ships to load and unload the railroad’s cargo. The Railway Pier became a sight-seeing and recreational attraction for both residents and tourists. This pier lasted until 1906, when it was replaced by the 3,000-foot Electric Pier, which served as a steamship dock and also had electric trolley tracks to serve the passenger terminal at its end.
The Electric Pier was replaced in 1913 by the wooden Municipal Pier, built ten feet away from its now defunct predecessor. The new pier featured a solarium, bath house and beach. On October 25, 1921 the Municipal Pier was heavily damaged when a hurricane plowed through Tampa Bay.
The remnants of the Municipal Pier sat abandoned until 1925, when a million dollar bond, along with another $300,000 in pledges, allowed for the construction of what for obvious reasons became known as the Million Dollar Pier. This pier, with its Mediterranean-style architecture, opened in 1926 and featured an open-air ballroom, an observation deck and a large atrium to host community events. A trolley would deliver you to the entrance portico, but eventually the portico was closed off to make way for the first television station in the Tampa-St. Petersburg market, WSUN-TV. In 1967 the Million Dollar Pier closed and was demolished.
The controversial Inverted Pyramid Pier opened in 1973 on the same site as the long gone Million Dollar Pier, and featured nightlife, shopping, boat rentals, weekly festivals and a branch of the popular Columbia Restaurant. A festival-market style retail space of close to 70,000 square feet was added in 1987.
A 2004 report to the city council indicated that maintenance of the pier and its approach was no longer cost effective, and they should prepare to replace the pier within the next ten years. A plan was made with an allocation of $50,000,000 for the work to be done. In March 2006, then city council member Rick Kriseman said, “The most important piece of the puzzle is, ‘What does the community want?’.”
It wasn’t until 2009 that Mayor Bill Foster appointed an advisory task force on the topic. It took 14 months of meetings with consultants and the public to develop a plan for the Pier’s replacement, to be called The Lens. The proposed design caused much acrimony and was heavily debated. The animosity finally led to a referendum called Stop the Lens. When it finally came to a vote, The Lens proposal was soundly rejected by a two-thirds majority.
With the rejection of The Lens design, Mayor Rick Kriseman began the process of finding a suitable replacement in January of 2014. A Pier Committee was formed to discuss the merits of the top three new pier designs that had been submitted. They ranked the Pier Park design as their number-one pick. Some weeks after the initial meeting, Mayor Rick Kriseman said that the residents of St. Pete just wanted to see their elected officials build a pier. The St. Petersburg City Council approved the Pier Park plan on May 7, 2015. Demolition of the Inverted Pyramid began on August 18, 2015.
Susan Robertson, the Pier’s former marketing director, said: “I know it’s progress. I know we have to move on, but there are a lot of memories.” Certainly, this is a feeling shared by many St. Petersburg residents.
It remains to be seen how closely the design of the Pier Park, scheduled to be completed in 2018, will resemble the final product when it graces the St. Petersburg waterfront. No doubt the new pier will bring new memories. But whether its history will be as meaningful to future generations, as our past piers are to those of us who are old enough to remember them, is yet to be told.