In St. Petersburg’s short 128 years, acres of scrub land have been thoughtfully developed into a beautiful little city where people come to enjoy life, which was the plan all along. Emily Elwyn, president of the board of St. Petersburg Preservation, architectural historian and tour guide extraordinaire, explained this to our tour group last month as we took the organization’s Original Downtown Historic Walking Tour.
Elwyn said when the founding developers needed a hook, a reason to get people to come to their newly established city, they decided, “The only thing we want to sell in St. Petersburg is the Florida dream. The idea of this wonderful life. You can pick an orange off a tree, you can catch a fish out of the bay. The weather is fabulous…so really that’s what was encouraging people to come here.”
All these years later, Elwyn and her team at St. Petersburg Preservation want to keep that Florida dream alive, not only for the 15 million visitors who visit The Sunshine City and the surrounding beaches every year, but also for St. Pete’s more than a quarter-million residents. That’s why St. Petersburg Preservation’s mission is to “advocate, educate and celebrate” all that makes St. Petersburg special.
“I think we can all agree that St. Petersburg has a very unique feel. It feels like someplace so different than any other place we’re going to find in Florida,” said Elwyn. “We try to find ways to protect our city, but also encourage thoughtful redevelopment of our city, so we want to have the great sparkling condos on Beach Drive, but also want the authentic older buildings you’ll see on this tour.”
Our small group followed Elwyn along Central Avenue around the “First Block”, where Get a Fresh Perspective from a St. Petersburg Preservation Walking Tour By Amy Beeman she told us about the history of the Detroit Hotel, the first building constructed in St. Petersburg in 1888; as well as other original structures along Central Avenue between Second and Third Street North, including the Michigan Building and the St. Charles Building, which was built by a female developer in 1904.
As the tour circled around the block to First Avenue North, history intermingled with new development as beeping trucks and the thuds of heavy machinery announced the construction of the 40-story ONE Building across from Ringside Cafe on Second Street North.
While it is St. Petersburg Preservation’s goal to maintain the historic integrity of the original buildings in the city, Elwyn acknowledges that progress is also part of the evolution of cities. “We want these businesses to continue to be a vibrant success, continue to be used, but we would love to see a thoughtful way to continue to reuse it. We don’t want to freeze it in time, but we also know that this is what makes our city special,” she said. “At St. Pete Preservation, we’re continuing to find ways to try to work with the owners— try to work with the city—to encourage the community to really let the city know that this block is special and that this block matters to people.”
Along the tour we learn about the Binnie Bishop hotel on First Avenue North, which opened in 1910 and was originally a blacksmith shop, before the owner saw that he could make more money if he opened a hotel. We can see that parts of the cast-iron storefront are still intact in front of what is now Yard of Ale.
Further up on First Avenue, we’re told about the locally founded Women’s Town Improvement Association building (now the Scientology building), which housed the group who were integral in getting those all-important sidewalks built downtown during a time when horses regularly mingled with the townsfolk.
Across the street at Williams Park, we learned that originally it was a place where you could tie up your cow or pig. It also evolved into an area where people gathered to play games like horseshoes and shuffleboard, which became so popular that eventually it spawned the still-popular St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club in 1924. We found out that in 1954, modernist architect William Harvard won the American Institute of Architecture’s Award of Excellence for his design of the Williams Park band shell; that our Mediterraneanstyle, open-air post office is one of only two in the nation still employing bicycles to deliver mail (the other is in San Diego); and that prior to our famous brick-paved streets, the roads were paved with shells taken from Native American shell mounds.
A lot of interesting and fun facts were packed into the one-hour tour, providing a fresh perspective about our great city to even a longtime resident like myself.