How St. Pete Became The Sunshine City

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Lawn bowling was a serious recreational pursuit in 1950./Photo courtesy St. Petersburg Museum of History

Vintage St. Pete

BY PETER BELMONT

Most point to the 1888 arrival of the Orange Belt Railroad as marking the city’s start. It wasn’t exactly a booming metropolis at that point. The story goes that a Savannah shoe salesman with thoughts of some quick sales arrived on the first train but left the next day after seeing the hamlet where he had debarked. In 1890, the “city” still claimed less than 300 inhabitants, but it wasn’t long before dreamers and schemers were calling the area home.

 By 1902, boosters declared St. Petersburg a city second to none! Over the next half-century, from the 1920s Building Boom to the 1950s Baby Boom, the city’s population exploded.

William Straub arrived in town at the turn of the century and soon became the editor and owner of the St. Petersburg Times. He used the newspaper as champion of turning the city’s working waterfront into a public jewel. Today, the city has the third-largest public waterfront in North America, setting St. Petersburg apart from other cities with waterfronts that seem separated from their downtowns.

In real estate they say it’s all about location. It was the efforts of a marketing genius, however, that put St. Petersburg on the map as one of the country’s leading tourist destinations. In 1918, John Lodwick left Ohio, landed in St. Petersburg and was soon boasting to the Chamber of Commerce about his abilities to promote the area. In hiring him, the ‘Burg became the first American city to have a public relations director. Lodwick combined showmanship, publicity stunts and writing skills to keep the city in the eye of northern tourists until his death in 1942. His use of sports, bathing beauties and sunshine made promoting the Sunshine City look easy.

Tourists flocked to the beach in St. Pete in 1928./Photo courtesy St. Petersburg Museum of History

At the start of the roaring ‘20s, St. Petersburg was booming. Hotels like the Vinoy, the Soreno ( demolished in 1992), the Pennsylvania and Princess Martha were being built downtown. Developers like Perry Snell (Snell Isle), Cade Allen (Allendale) and Charles Hall (Kenwood) were platting “new” neighborhoods.  The boom came to a screeching halt in 1926, but not before the city had been transformed.

Though its significance is often overlooked, the post-World War II era marked another boom for St. Petersburg, focused on expanding suburban neighborhoods. A new style of architecture, today described as mid-century modern, was introduced to the city by architects like William Harvard Sr. (Williams Park bandshell, Pasadena Community Church) and Glenn Johnson (St. Petersburg Judicial Building, “birdcage” homes). The first of Eckerd College’s buildings, the main branch building for St. Petersburg’s library on 9th Avenue North and the circular looking “Skyline” building on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. St. North are other local examples of mid-century modern architecture.

DID YOU KNOW

How many local historic districts does the city currently have?

Six. Historic Roser Park was designated in 1987 and has 68 properties in the district. Granada Terrace was designated in 1988 and has 69 properties. Lang’s Bungalow Court was designated in 2014 and has 13 properties in the district.  The 700 block of 18th Avenue NE was designated in 2016 and has 10 properties. North Shore Section – 200 Block Section 10th Avenue Northeast – final approval November 2017. North Shore Section – Welch’s Mediterranean Row Local Historic District –  scheduled for council approval.