Incorporated in 1903, St. Petersburg was new type of American city for a new century. Before St. Petersburg towns grew up with an industrial base, exploiting their natural resources or advantageous trade location. Here, the town grew up as a recreation destination. When town leaders dredged the harbor it was for pleasure boats and a 29-acre yacht basin - in fact water commerce was actively shuffled south, outside of the town. And the people did come to play. In the first quarter of the 20th century the population rose from less than 2,000 at the time of incorporation to an estimated 26,000.
In fact St. Petersburg received the stamp of approval as “Sunshine City” by no less an authority than the American Medical Association as far back as 1885. Dr. W.C. Van Bibber reported the results of his research that indicated that Pinellas Point peninsula was the sunniest place in the United States. Seldom has a proclamation before an august scientific body been so publicized to the public as this one, thanks to promoters of St. Petersburg. Millions of dollars was expended spreading the word about America’s new Sunshine City. Lew Brown, the publisher of the St. Petersburg Independent announced that the entire edition of his afternoon paper would be given away FREE if the sun failed to show by 3:00 p.m. In 26 years the Independent was distributed free 123 times, five times a year.
Developing solely as a tourist resort turned out exactly as town founder John Williams envisioned it. In 1875 the Detroit native purchased 2,500 acres along Tampa Bay with pictures of graceful parks and broad boulevards dancing in his head. Not much happened on Pinellas Peninsula until 1888 when Williams convinced exiled Russian nobleman, the anglicized Peter Demens, to route his Orange Belt Railway here. The popular story goes that the two men flipped a coin to name the town and Demens won, christening the community after his birthplace in Russia. When Williams constructed the first resort hotel in town he called it Detroit for his home town.
A town as unique as St. Petersburg demands a unique walking tour and ours will involve a walk around a park and a walk around a lake, both in the center of town, and we’ll start off in the park...
between 1st and 2nd Avenues North and 3rd and 4th Streets North
This square of greenspace was included in the original street plat for St. Petersburg in 1888 and a bandshell has been the centerpiece almost as long. The first wooden structure was erected in 1895 and blown away in a hurricane in 1921. It was replaced with a textbook clamshell that worked until the current bandshell was installed in 1954. William Harvard provided the award-winning design. In 1910 the park, called City Park from its beginning, was named for town founder John Considine Williams and dedicated by his widow, Sarah.
WE’LL EXPLORE THE BUILDING THAT LOOK OUT ON WILLIAMS PARK BY WALKING CLOCKWISE AROUND THE SQUARE. START ON THE WEST SIDE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE BLOCK, ACROSS 4TH STREET WITH THE BUILDING THAT LOOKS LIKE A GREEK TEMPLE...
The First Baptist Church
120 Fourth Street North
This classical Greek temple is a rare look for St. Petersburg. It was designed for the Baptists in 1924 by George Feltham with a full-height Corinthian portico supporting a broad pediment. Each of the stone pillars rests on a four-foot high stone base. The congregation started a peripatetic base in i891 before settling in this location in 1911. The church building that preceded this formidable structure was a wooden building that had been carted from the prior location on Central Avenue.
MOVING TO YOUR RIGHT, THE NEXT CHURCH, ON THE CORNER, IS...
St. Peter’s Episcopal Church
140 4th Street North
St. Peter’s began in 1889 as an unorganized mission and organized formally in 1894. In 1899 this Gothic Revival brick church was completed. Even though the tower at that time was only about half its current size, St. Peter’s dwarfed its surroundings at the edge of Williams Park.
ACROSS THE STREET FROM ST. PAUL’S AND CATTY-CORNER FROM WILLIAMS PARK IS...
200 4th Street North
The heart of this building goes back to 1901 and a wooden frame lodge that offered furnished rooms. The current stylish Art Deco look on the streetside facades came in 1939. Look up to see horizontal banding, corner windows and an eyebrow ledge above the third story. Known as the Randolph Hotel since 1939, rooms are still available here.
TURN RIGHT AND WALK ALONG 2ND AVENUE PAST THE BANDSHELL TO THE OPPOSITE CORNER AT 3RD STREET.
First United Methodist Church
212 Third Street North at 2nd Avenue
This congregation formed in 1887 and grew so fast that when this red brick sanctuary was raised in 1925 it was the church’s fourth and third on this site. James Baldwin designed the building in an English Gothic style dominated by a 144-foot square bell tower. The ornamentation is cast concrete and its ten stained glass windows depicting the life of Christ were crafted by George Hardy Payne Studios of Patterson, New Jersey.
TURN AND WALK THROUGH THE PARK TO THE MIDDLE OF 1ST AVENUE.
326 1st Avenue North
Although it operates today as the Williams Park Hotel and the ghost sign near the roof harkens back to an earlier incarnation as the McCarthy Hotel, this was the Dennis Hotel when it opened on December 15, 1925. Nick Dennis was a New York hotel and restaurant man when he decided to move to St. Petersburg in 1914 and try his hand with the resort trade. he began with the Park Cafeteria on this block and was ready to build a hotel with the Florida land boom in full swing in the 1920s. He hired Harry F. Cunningham, a professor of architecture at George Washington University and designer of several important buildings in the nation’s capital, to design his building. Cunningham delivered a Neoclassical eight-story building, three bays wide, dominated by two-story Corinthian pilasters and decorated in cast-stone and terra-cotta. After he was finished here Cunningham went to Nebraska to finish work on the state capitol and to this day the Cornhusker State’s highest award for architectural excellence, given annually, is named for Harry F. Cunningham. Nick Dennis was able to guide his 76-room guest house through Florida’e real estate collapse and the nation’s Great Depression.
The adjacent building to the west at #336 was once the home of the Woman’s Town Improvement Association. Although the street level of the two-story brick building has been severely compromised you can look up and see the arched windows of the 1913 Neoclassical structure.
TURN RIGHT AND WALK TO THE SOUTHWESTERN CORNER OF THE PARK. EXIT THE PARK BY TURNING LEFT ON 4TH STREET.
Open Air Post Office
400 First Avenue North at 4th Street
When St. Petersburg was slated to get a new post office in the early 1900s the typical federal treatment was planned with a monumental temple resting atop a grand flight of stairs. Postmaster Roy Hanna had his own ideas. His vision involved a more user-friendly building of a single story at street level. He submitted plans that drew inspiration from the public building of Florence, Italy. Furthermore, Hanna wanted a loggia open on three sides to give customers access to the postal lockboxes all the time. America’s first open-air post office became a reality in 1916 after Hanna’s ideas were formalized by architect George W. Stuart. Stuart’s circuitous path to St. Petersburg began in Glasgow, Scotland where he was born in 1856. The Stuart family moved to Ontario in Canada and after a college education and four years as an architect’s apprentice George found himself fighting the Sioux and Blackfeet in Canada’s last Indian War. He survived being shot with an arrow in the neck and resumed his architectural career in Winnipeg, Dallas, Atlanta and eventually St. Petersburg. Look up to see a colorful frieze of Mediterranean tiles and whimsical capitals with dolphins and shells on the columns of the arcaded loggia.
AT CENTRAL AVENUE TURN RIGHT.
405 Central Avenue
C. Perry Snell first discovered this area on his wedding trip in 1898. He would emerge as the man most responsible for shaping the look of St. Petersburg in the early 20th century. His crowning glory was the conversion of a small island of sand and mangroves into one of the town’s first residential subdivisions, called Snell Island. Downtown he developed this iconic tower in the 1920s. Richard Kiehnel, credited with introducing the Mediterranean Revival style to Florida designed the lavishly decorated building with input from the widely traveled Snell, who kept his office here. The most colorful of his business tenants was an outdoor night club called Spanish Bob’s. Snell was forced to sell his tower during the Depression and after years as office space it was converted to condominiums in 2003.
Across the street is the building of the National Bank of St. Petersburg that organized in 1905 and was one of the early town’s most powerful banks until it closed during the Depression in 1931. The 1912 bank building was hidden behind an ornamental aluminum covering in 1960. Some historic buildings have been rescued from such treatments by preservationists but that is not the case here. The aluminum also hides the slightly taller Pheil Hotel that was started in 1916 by Adam Pheil who claimed to be the world’s first commercial airline passenger when he paid $400 for a airboat trip to Tampa in 1914.
475 Central Avenue
Samuel H. Kress took as much pride in the artistic appearance of his five-and-dime stores as he did in the profits they churned out in the early 1900s. This is actually one of the least elaborate of the Kress downtown buildings gracing the streets of towns around Florida. Look up to see the trademark “Kress” masthead in gold, framed by classical rooftop urns.
535 Central Avenue
Before this hotel, although it appears modest today, was constructed in 1919 guest houses in St. Petersburg were small wooden frame affairs financed by their owner-operators. The Alexander marked a shift to stylishly designed hotels of the type new travelers to Florida had come to expect. Georgia architect Neel Reid, who had studied in Paris at the Ecole de Beaux Arts and was a champion of the Renaissance Revival style, provided the classical design for Robert Lee Ely and Jacob Alexander’s hotel. Alexander, a North Carolinian politician, provided the seed money and Ely, who operated the town’s first cafeteria-style restaurant, brought the nuts-and-bolts experience to the venture.
685-687 Central Avenue
This building began life in 1924 as the Alexander National Bank, boasting a beautifully proportioned Beaux Arts design from Neel Reid. The three bays are defined by quoined pilasters topped bysinewy Ionic capitals; the pattern is carried to the columns supporting the arched opening in each bay. When founder Jason Alexander passed away in 1926 his bank collapsed. Another bank, Fidelity Bank and Trust, moved in three months before the stock market crashed in 1929. No other financial institution was standing in line to try its luck and the building was used as office space until 1949 when it was remodeled as the State Theater which is still hosting concerts.
The Green-Richman Arcade
689 Central Avenue
It is believed that a dozen or so shopping arcades were constructed in St. Petersburg between the First and Second World Wars; this is one of only three remaining. John Green and William Richman were real estate developers who constructed this building 1925. George Feltham, a noted early architect in town dating back to 1913 provided the Spanish Mission style design.
TURN RIGHT ON 7TH STREET. TURN RIGHT ON 1ST AVENUE. A HALF-BLOCK DOWN TURN LEFT ON MIRROR LAKE DRIVE NORTH AND WALK TO THE LAKE. MIRROR LAKE WAS ORIGINALLY CALLED RESERVOIR LAKE AND WAS THE FIRST SOURCE OF PUBLIC DRINKING WATER FOR THE TOWN. TURN LEFT AND WALK CLOCKWISE AROUND THE LAKE, FOLLOWING MIRROR LAKE DRIVE NORTH.
Unitarian Universalist Church
719 Arlington Avenue North at Mirror Lake Drive
The church started with Pearl Cole who was yearning to find a church less rigid than traditional doctrines in the early 1900s. But her family of three was too small to start a church. When the West family of Philadelphia and similar thinking arrived in St. Petersburg the two families and eight members launched the Universalist church in town. For many years as the tiny congregation picked up new adherents services were held in private homes and rented space around town. After merging with the Unitarians in 1928 this charming, tree-shrouded Spanish Colonial meetinghouse was constructed. The church building on the shores of Mirror Lake was designed by Philip Horton Smith.
Mirror Lake Lyceum
737 3rd Avenue North at Mirror Lake Drive
The members of the First Christian Church of St. Petersburg began assembling in January 1900 and had prospered sufficiently by the 1920s to construct this Mission Revival styled sanctuary capable of hosting 1,000 worshipers. By 1992 the congregation had dwindled to about 40 regular congregants showing up for services and the building was sold. It has since been renovated into banquet and conference space, taking advantage of the old church’s 53-foot domed ceiling.
St. Petersburg High School
701 Mirror Lake Drive North
St. Petersburg High School, founded in 1898, moved into this impressive four-story home in1919. The highschoolers only stayed until 1926, however, before moving into what was billed as America’s first million-dollar high school on 5th Avenue. The building continued to educate younger grades until 1964. After that it was an adult education center and has been a residential complex since 1991. The Mission Revival style was provided by St. Louis architect William Ittner, considered the most influential man in school architecture in the United States. Ittner has a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club
559 Mirror Lake Drive
The St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club was the first organized club of its kind. The first courts were laid out in this park in 1923 and the clubhouse, designed by Harry Cunningham, was constructed four years later. The original building was a small rectangular structure with a steeply sloping roof. The complex now includes four masonry buildings, including a dance hall added in 1937, a grandstand and 65 hard-surfaced courts. Shuffleboard became popular as a deck game on board passenger ships and the first modern courts fashioned on land were constructed in Daytona in 1913. St. Petersburg’s were the second.
TURN RIGHT ON 5TH STREET.
Mirror Lake Library
280 Fifth Street North
After selling his steel company for $400 million to become the world’s richest man, Andrew Carnegie set out to give his money all away. One of his pet causes was public libraries and he would fund over 2,500 across the world. St. Petersburg received a grant of $17,500 to build the first home of its public library system in 1913 after a five-year process; it was one of 11 Carnegie libraries constructed in Florida. Henry D. Whitfield, a Carnegie Corporation architect, provided the Beaux Arts design with a Spanish flavor once the eye reaches the roofline.
Municipal Utilities Building/St. Petersburg City Hall
175 5th Street North at 2nd Avenue
In a unique funding arrangement during the Depression of the 1930s the federal government provided a grant of $175,000 and a self-liquidating loan of $214,000 to be paid with revenue from the city gas works to pay for this building. A stipulation of the deal required that it carry the name “Municipal Utility Building.” The structure blends elements of the then popular Art Deco style with the locally favored Mediterranean style (clay tile roof, wrought iron balconettes and vertical towers).
WALK A FEW STEPS BEHIND CITY HALL ALONG 2ND AVENUE TO SEE...
City Hall Annex
440 2nd Avenue North
This is one of the first brick buildings constructed in St. Petersburg, back in 1901, and is one of the oldest buildings in the downtown area. It was funded with money provided by Edwin H. Tomlinson, one of early St. Petersburg’s most colorful characters and its greatest early benefactor, funding a church and a hospital and other public works. Tomlinson hailed from Connecticut and made his fortune in mining. He first wintered in the area in 1891 and eventually built one of the town’s grandest Victorian palaces. He also owned the first automobile in St. Petersburg. Tomlinson was a fixture at most town celebrations and hosted great parties for the town children. This building was the Domestic Science and Manual Training School, as fine a learning institution as any town of a couple thousand inhabitants could boast of in America. The school relocated to Mirror Lake as the Tomlinson Vocational School in 1925 and the building did duty as home to a succession of civic organizations until the City acquired it in 1981. The old school has ben restored, preserving the fine brick work on the rectangular Vernacular building.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO 5TH STREET AND TURN LEFT, WALKING PAST THE FRONT OF CITY HALL TO THE CORNER OF 1ST AVENUE.
501 1st Avenue North at 5th Street
During the height of Florida’s land boom in the early 1920s it was not unusual for folks with a house in an advantageous location to surrender their homes to chase the riches. Such was the case here when John Brown, who was serving as Clerk of the Circuit Court at the time, built the Suwannee Hotel on the site of his home. Opened in 1924 the building was rehabilitated in 1993 as offices for Pinellas County.
TURN LEFT ON 1ST AVENUE.
Christ United Methodist Church
467 1st Avenue North
Local architect Archie Parrish tapped into the Italian renaissance and Art Deco styles for elements to this church, completed in 1949. For the base and trim he used shell-base Florida coquina stone. The congregation traces its roots to 1891.
Princess Martha Hotel
411 First Avenue North at 4th Street
This was the first hotel in St. Petersburg to be financed by the sale of public stock so a lot of people lost money instead of only a few when it went bankrupt in the Florida real estate collapse. Enough subscribers were found in the 1923 offering to bring $1.5 million to bear on the construction and furnishings of this Neoclassical red brick hotel that was completed in 1924. The H-shaped design allowing air to circulate and more window space for guests was provided by the Boston firm of James H. Ritchie and Associates through a partner, Frank Jonsberg, who had retired to St. Petersburg but agreed to helm the project when the original architect was fired. William Muir bailed the hotel out of bankruptcy and named it after his wife. The building was renovated in 1988 as a residential property.
YOU HAVE NOW RETURNED TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT WILLIAMS PARK.