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Banished: Ulele bust on Tampa’s Riverwalk is headed to a warehouse

TAMPA — Princess Ulele is banished from the Riverwalk.

The 1,800-pound bronze bust portraying the Native American royal was placed outside the downtown waterfront restaurant bearing her name as a temporary art exhibit in December.

At the time, Richard Gonzmart, who owns both the restaurant and the statue,  said he didn't know how long "temporary" meant.

As it turns out, about nine months.

Gonzmart  blamed Mayor Bob Buckhorn for the artwork's imminent journey into obscurity. It will be moved to a warehouse on Tuesday.

"I have been told repeatedly that Mayor Buckhorn wants it moved from that location," Gonzmart said in a Wednesday statement.

Not so, said the mayor's spokeswoman Ashley Bauman in a text early Thursday.

Gonzmart purchased the building and surrounding land after leasing both from the city for several years. But the land near the Riverwalk upon which the bust was erected remains public land. Gonzmart put the bust on city property without permission, Bauman said.

"Alongside a Riverwalk that we have worked hard to keep free of clutter. The codes apply to everyone and nobody has the liberty of erecting structures on property that does not belong to them," she said.

Stored in a warehouse before its installation, the 1,800-pound bronze bust of Princess Ulele now stand near the north end of the Tampa Riverwalk. [Courtesy of Richard Gonzmart]
Stored in a warehouse before its installation, the 1,800-pound bronze bust of Princess Ulele now stand near the north end of the Tampa Riverwalk. [Courtesy of Richard Gonzmart]
Gonzmart had a different take.

"I ordered and paid for this statue to honor the Native Americans, such as Ulele, who lived in this area long before us," he said in the statement. "It's been a wonderful addition to the Riverwalk and guests have taken thousands of photos of it."

Use of the lawn at the north of the Riverwalk has always been part of the deal between the city and Gonzmart's Columbia Restaurant Group, said Michael Kilgore, chief marketing officer with the company. In 2012, Gonzmart won the bid to turn the old brick Water Works Building into a restaurant.

"Our understanding all along … is that Ulele would have access to the lawn, almost to the Riverwalk, with few restrictions," Kilgore said. "After years of negotiations, the city removed much of what had been promised regarding the lawn in numerous meetings."

The 1,800-pound, 8-by-8-by-6-foot bust of Ulele stands atop a three-foot steel base featuring five sculpted arrows. Gonzmart commissioned the work from sculptor Vala Ola of Cave Creek, Ariz.

Ulele restaurant gets its name from an adjacent natural spring already named for the princess.

Gonzmart, whose business portfolio is rooted in Ybor City's century-old Columbia Restaurant, has shown unique taste in decorating the exterior of his indoor-outdoor Ulele restaurant.

In January 2017, he spent nearly $30,000 at an auction on 11 brightly colored fiberglass figures depicting fairy-tale scenes, a feature of the former Fairyland Park at Tampa's Lowry Park.

The statues, which include Humpty Dumpty and Cinderella, have been reassembled around the restaurant.

Princess Ulele is the namesake of both the Riverwalk restaurant and the adjacent natural spring at Water Works Park. [Times files]
Princess Ulele is the namesake of both the Riverwalk restaurant and the adjacent natural spring at Water Works Park. [Times files]
For Gonzmart, the scenes hit a  nostalgic nerve. Like many Tampa kids of his generation, he remembers Fairyland as a favorite attraction.

The name Ulele also pulls at Gonzmart's emotions.

According to a Pocahontas-like myth, the Tocobaga Indian princess lived in the Tampa Bay area during the 16th century and saved the life of an early Spanish explorer when her father ordered him put to death.

"Lele" is also the name Gonzmart's daughter Andrea Williams had for his late mother Adela Hernandez Gonzmart.

The date of the bust's installation, Dec. 22, 2017, was the 16th anniversary of his mother's death.

Another depiction of Ulele, also sculpted by Ola, remains on the property in the outdoor dining area – a seven-foot, 500-pound bronze statue showing the princess walking amid of a ring of flames.

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