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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
Columnists

Hill: How inverted pyramid came to be

Published:

Let’s take care of the burning questions first.

That way, the story of the inverted pyramid sitting empty and forlorn in Tampa Bay at the end of Second Avenue Northeast can take center stage.

William Harvard Jr. runs Harvard Jolly, the architectural firm his father, William Sr., started and, with Blanchard Jolly, built into a nationally recognized company. William Sr. died in 1995. Jolly retired in 1999. William Jr. is president and CEO. His brother Lee works there as well.

Although William Jr. and Lee had no direct part in designing The Pier — the effort began about 1970, before they formally joined the firm — the iconic structure remains a significant element, not just in the city’s history but in their personal and professional lives.

They have an interest in the future of the pier and are disappointed there seemed to be no interest in renovating the existing structure before elected officials decided to replace it.

“I don’t think there was any time spent on examining what could be done,” said William Jr.

But they stayed out of the debate about the Lens project, which St. Petersburg voters overwhelmingly rejected in August.

Why?

Likely because they are genteel men not given to tooting horns, stirring pots or crashing parties to which they have not been invited.

When I asked what they thought of the Lens, William Jr. simply said: “The people spoke.”

Because the question of what structure ultimately might grace the waterfront remains undecided, it’s interesting to note how the inverted pyramid came to be.

I had heard some of the story before from people who know the Harvards. Once explained, the inverted pyramid no longer was a flight of fancy, but made sense.

It was that “Wow. Now I get it” moment that piqued my interest in a fuller explanation of The Pier.

You have to take all the practical issues and turn them into something concrete, says William Jr.

And there were plenty of practical issues that affected the design — and will affect whatever is done at the end of Second Avenue Northeast.

After the Million Dollar Pier was razed in 1967, the approach and foundation sat empty for several years.

St. Petersburg leaders, eager to upgrade the city’s image, wanted a distinctive pier building that would attract people to the then sleepy downtown. They contracted with William Sr., a known innovator who had designed the Williams Park Pavilion, Pasadena Community Church and the Hospitality Center at Busch Gardens.

There was no international search; no design competition. Just ask the most accomplished architect in your community to get to work.

At the time, it was no secret that the pier’s approach and foundation would not last more than an additional 20 or so years.

Challenge number one was to find a way to build a notable structure that would offer shade, open spaces, views aplenty, public rooms, a restaurant and other amenities that would not add additional stress to the existing foundation.

But there were many restrictions, the main one being money; there wasn’t enough to replace the building, the foundation and the approach. The failing roadway and foundation would have to wait.

(They are still waiting, by the way.)

Harvard designed a structure that did not rely at all on the existing foundation. Four caissons driven deep into bedrock were poured to provide a new foundation. Those caissons will live a long time. The area they offer as support is not large enough for an expansive ground floor.

Given the parameters, the inverted pyramid made perfect sense.

Was there controversy over the futuristic building?

Neither Harvard brothers like the word controversy.

“Some people don’t like new things,” said William Jr.

Besides, he said, good architecture is supposed to evoke emotion.

If they had their druthers, they would like to see The Pier “renovated and restored.”

It could be substantially transformed, they say, into a high-tech, 21st century building.

That’s the simplest thing to do, they say, and the most fiscally conservative.

Proponents of a new pier obviously don’t agree.

So what will happen?

It’s anyone’s guess. The 828 Alliance, formed when the Lens contract looked as if it might be terminated by voters, made its recommendations — which included renovating the existing structure — to Mayor Bill Foster.

And there’s a municipal election Nov. 5. The Pier, new or old, has been a political issue.

Stay tuned.

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