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Letters To The Editor

St. Pete prepares for life without its inverted pyramid pier

Tribune staff
Published:   |   Updated: May 31, 2013 at 06:53 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

The Million Dollar Pier was already a fading memory when construction finally began on its replacement in the early 1970s.

The pier that slowly rose from its footprint was unlike anything St. Petersburg had seen before.

The modernist five-story glass and steel structure was an attempt by city leaders to shake off the city's image as a retirement destination. Even more radical was its inverted pyramid shape, chosen by architect William B. Harvard to make the most use of the limited space at the pierhead without blocking views of the city and Tampa Bay.

The design sparked as much controversy as the current Lens proposal, with skeptics quipping that the architect had his blueprint upside down. Over its 40-year life, though, The Pier won over many residents, rivaling the pelican logo as St. Petersburg's most recognizable icon and stamping an indelible imprint on the city.

Revelers flocked there for holiday and First Night celebrations. Couples tied the knot on its upper decks. Framed against a deep blue Tampa Bay, The Pier became TV's favored cutaway shot during Tampa Bay Rays' games. Its decks served as grandstands for yacht regattas, powerboat races and rock concerts.

Now, the days are numbered for the landmark city leaders say would cost $80 million to save. The Pier will close to the public Friday, a first step toward the scheduled start of demolition in August that, for many, will mark the end of an era.

“It's been an important part of the city's history and sense of place,” said Will Michaels, author of “The Making of St. Petersburg.”

“It will be missed by a lot of people.”

The Pier's demolition is also an architectural loss, said Frank Starkey, a former architect and board member of the Seaside Institute, a nonprofit group that promotes new urban planning.

It location at the end of a long single approach drew people in, yet made The Pier look farther away than it really was, Starkey said.

“[Harvard] took the most solid and heavy architecture and rendered it in a lightweight frame, suspended seemingly impossibly over water,” Starkey said in an email.

St. Petersburg's downtown was ailing when work began on the inverted pyramid. The Million Dollar Pier had been demolished in 1967, leaving behind a 4-acre over-the-water park for anglers. The lure of air-conditioning at Tyrone Gardens Shopping Center and other malls had drawn away stores and restaurants. Most of the city's famed green benches had been removed in the 1960s by city leaders worried tourists would be turned off by throngs of older people crowding downtown streets. The Vinoy Hotel was empty and abandoned.

“You could shoot a cannon off on Central Avenue and not hit anybody,” Michaels said.

The Pier, which cost double the original estimate of $2 million, opened for business on a Monday but had an official weekend opening five days later on Jan. 20, 1973. It's the seventh pier that has graced the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront since the late 19th century.

Bands from 10 local high schools took part in the opening ceremony that included candle lighting and fireworks. Visitors arriving for the ceremony were advised to “Let yourself go” by a sign affixed to The Pier's top floor.

“The sparkling new inverted pyramid adorning the pierhead spells resurrection for St. Petersburg's unique waterfront promontory,” trumpeted the editorial page of the St. Petersburg Evening Independent.

At that time, the ground floor of The Pier was just a small lobby with an elevator with some stores on the outside of the building. Other floors were used by the Chamber of Commerce and as a community meeting space. Marriott Corp., which managed the building, also ran a restaurant on the fourth floor, Michaels said.

By the mid-1980s, The Pier was struggling. The city sued Marriott in the late-1970s, claiming it hadn't lived up to its management contract. The city has changed management companies several times since.

As now, rent from tenants did not cover the costs of running and managing the property, said Nevin Sitler, a local historian with the St. Petersburg Museum of History.

Gift shops, snack bars and restaurants and an open-air putt-putt business came and went.

Business improved after the city temporarily closed The Pier and overhauled the ground floor, creating a mall-like environment with welcome air-conditioning for shoppers and tourists. The relaunch in 1998 included the addition of the Columbia Restaurant and Cha Cha Coconuts, both run by the Columbia Restaurant Group. About 1.8 million people visited the Pier each year in the early-1990s, city officials estimated.

Debra Brown was there for the re-opening, working in a jewelry store. She later moved to another pier store, Just Hats, before opening in 1994 Peppers on the Pier, selling knick knacks, souvenirs and work by local artists.

The Pier has been like a second home for Brown. In 1992, she met her life partner, David Dahms, who ran an art gallery there. She remembers concerts by Stevie Nicks and Meatloaf, when the pier approach was thronged with people.

Relocating her store would be too expensive, Brown said, and she does not know what she'll do once her store closes. She can only watch as workers begin stripping the building in preparation for its closing.

The Pier's two Zoltar fortune-telling arcade machines were recently removed, as was the Elvis Presley love-meter machine, leading to some “Elvis has left the building” cracks.

The jokes can't cover the sadness, though.

“This place has become everything to a lot of people, not just a place where our business happens to be,” Brown said. “Where do you go with 30 years of memories?”

Residents who seldom visit the Pier have been turning up in the last few weeks to say goodbye. Thousands of people attended last weekend's “Raise a Toast to the Pier” sendoff event, which included face-painting, circus acts and a cocktail contest; and the slate of events planned for Memorial Day includes a waterskiing show, confetti, canons and fireworks.

Pinellas Park residents Wendell and Ruth Hockersmith, who have visited the Pier at least 40 times, were there on Thursday, the anniversary of the day they met 43 years ago. The couple has dined there for Christmas and Thanksgiving.

“It's just the best place to go in St. Petersburg,” Wendell Hockersmith said. “Like us, it's full of memories.”

After 25 years running her Crystal Mirage gift store at the Pier, Carol Gray is preparing to close. Working at the Pier has been a blessing, she said. She still remembers the motorbike shows that filled the first floor and how the Pier once drew up to 10 tour buses a day.

“It's always been the people's pier, somewhere you could go and spend the day out on the water,” she said. “You can eat and have a view of the city lights. There's still nowhere quite like that.”

Former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker was in office when staff members told him the pilings on the pier approach that dated back to the 1920s would have to be replaced. He saw for himself the exposed rebar and crumbling concrete of the place where he took his young children at weekends.

“It was a great family event for them to go to the Pier just to ride the trolley and fish off the pier,” he said.

What happens after the Pier closes is uncertain. The inverted pyramid building and its approach will be closed to the public for about two weeks while business owners move out. The approach will then re-open for pedestrian traffic and fishing.

The pier approach will close again prior to demolition, which is scheduled for August provided the city obtains the permits it needs. Demolition will include the inverted pyramid and the approach.

Most pier businesses are relocating, city officials say. The Pier Aquarium is moving to John's Pass. The Dolphin Queen will continue to operate its boat tours from the city's marina. The Columbia Restaurant has agreed a tentative deal with the city to lease land at the entrance to the pier approach for a new $3 million restaurant.

The Lens, the futuristic design chosen by an international panel after a five-year process of public meetings and studies, will not be built unless it survives an expected citywide referendum on Aug. 27. If approved, city officials estimate the new pier could open by summer 2015.

Should voters reject the Lens, Baker fears the city could be left without a pier for years, which could slow down development in the city's downtown.

“City development is all about momentum,” he said.

A few more years may need to pass before the inverted pyramid pier's place in city history is put into perspective. At the very least, it has continued the city's rich tradition of piers that dates back to the 1890s, Sitler said.

“It still has a visual presence of what the future was supposed to look like,” he said. “I don't think the city would be a tourist destination and have fallen in love with its waterfront without having a pier out there.”


codonnell@tampatrib.com

(727) 215-7654

Twitter: @codonnellTBO

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