St. Pete—Then and Now

Story and photos by Michelle da Silva Richmond

The Vinoy Resort was a favorite with international celebs in its heyday.

According to local lore, St. Petersburg, Florida, got its name as the result of a coin toss between two of the area’s first “movers and shakers” in the late 19th century: Gen. John C. Williams of Detroit, who purchased 1,600 acres in what is now downtown in 1875 and Peter Demens (originally Pyotr Alexeyevitch Dementyev), a Russian immigrant who brought his small-gauge Orange Belt Railroad to the Gulf Coast. According to the story, they disagreed on a name for the new community so they left it to “chance.” Demens won, and he named the city St. Petersburg after his hometown in Russia.

The iconic Pier sits abandoned, awaiting its fate.A fellow Russian immigrant, Dr. Van Bibber, launched the area onto the international stage as a “healthy” vacation destination. After his paper “Where Should a Health (sic) City Be Built” was presented at the April 1885 meeting of the American Medical Society in New Orleans, doctors prescribed the area as a cure for whatever ailed you. At that time hot springs and seaside spas were a popular cure and Dr. Bibber concluded that Point Pinellas, as it was known then, was the ideal location for the “world’s health city.” He extolled the benefits of the waters and the “delights of a winter climate which have no equal elsewhere.” The rest, as they say, is history.

When I first visited St. Petersburg in the early 1970s after my family moved there, it was predominately a retirement haven, to which the elderly and ailing (including my own grandmother) flocked from all over the U.S. 

Once there, the newly installed residents became firmly entrenched in endless days of shuffleboard, card games, “early bird specials” at the popular Morrison’s Cafeteria and the inevitable trips to Webb’s City, a one-stop 1920s department store touted as “the World’s Most Unusual Drug Store.”

Dubbed the “Sunshine City,” its soft, sandy beaches, affordable housing and calendar promising 360 days of endless sunshine added to the allure. That guarantee was so stable that the St. Petersburg Times delivered gratis on any day without sunshine.

The once legendary Fountain of Youth has been transformed into water fountain.

In the 1970s downtown St. Petersburg wasn’t especially attractive and had an “empty” feel to it – punctuated, perhaps by the unoccupied green park benches lining Central Ave. Possibly the most interesting attraction at the time was the “Fountain of Youth” – a nod to Spanish conquistador Ponce de León’s search when he arrived in the state in 1513. The fountain -- opened in 1889 and drawn from well water -- was unceremoniously closed in 1975. Today, a smaller version exists as an after thought, the location of which is generally unknown even to local residents.

The Pier,” which had been a landmark for generations in one form or another since the original was built in 1889, had shops, restaurants and an observation deck. Today, it is closed and shuttered, awaiting the decision of the "powers that be," whether to redesign it -- or tear it down.

The Renaissance Vinoy Resort

Salvador Dali Museum has the largest collection of the artist's work outside of Spain.Nearby, the iconic Vinoy Hotel overlooks the bay as it has since its completion in 1925. Once a popular destination for celebrities ranging from Herbert Hoover, Babe Ruth, Jimmy Stewart and others, it was taken over by the U.S. Army during WWII and used as a training school. In 1974 it shuttered its doors and became a haven for vagrants (and an eyesore) until it was rescued in the 1990s by the Vinoy Development Corporation and Renaissance Hotels and Resorts. After a $93 million renovation, it has been restored to its former glory and has earned National Register of Historic Places designation.

Today’s downtown waterfront dazzles with a marina, scenic parks, popular bistros, boutiques, clubs, luxury condos, lofts, and museums. Of special note is the Salvador Dali Museum, opened in January 2011 in its present location, which boasts the largest collection of his works outside of Spain.

The Florida Holocaust Museum -- opened in February 1998 in its present site -- is one of the largest Holocaust museums in the U.S. honoring the memory of millions of innocent men, women and children who suffered or died in the Holocaust.

The Beaches

Nearby Gulfport, once a quiet strip of beach anchored by the historic Gulfport Casino Ballroom (with its 1930s style dance floor and ongoing dances), has morphed into an eclectic community with artists and artisans hawking their wares at annual festivals and in funky boutiques, trendy restaurants and a fresh produce market on Tuesdays.

St. Pete Beach -- which officially shortened its name in 1994 -- has blossomed from the proverbial sleepy beach town into a hip destination. A barrier island community off mainland St. Petersburg, it still houses some small beach cottages and an occasional diner reflecting “old Florida,” but it is also home to swank resorts, luxurious condos and premier eateries.

The Pink Palace stands as a sentinel to its illustrious past.A retro vibe can be felt along Corey Ave., one of the main streets. Small shops, bistros, a small theater and weekend arts and crafts market promise plenty to do with “shop ops” ranging from year-round Christmas ornaments to jewelry, designer “duds” and imported cigars.

Throughout St. Pete Beach, you’ll find resorts, nostalgic mom ‘n’ pop motels and cozy B&Bs – many of them on the beach.

The Don Cesar

The legendary Don Cesar Hotel, a.k.a. the “Pink Palace,” which debuted as a hotel in 1928, was a favorite with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Al Capone, FDR and other notables. After the death of owner Thomas Rowe, it fell on hard times and served alternately as a military hospital, convalescent center and VA administration until it was abandoned and slated for demolition. Fierce opposition by local residents managed to save it, and the Pink Palace was refurbished, opened as a hotel and named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

Today the Loews Don Cesar Hotel is a AAA Four Diamond resort. In addition to housing one of the best spas in the area, it is home to the award-winning Maritana Grille, which showcases fresh seafood, a varied menu with artistic "new American menu," and an extensive wine list. The eye-catching aquariums, filled with colorful fish (including resident eel "Cesar"), add to the exceptional experience.

 Sunsets on St. Pete Beach are exceptional.

The quaint turn-of-the-20th-century fishing village I knew at John’s Pass has evolved into one of Pinellas County’s top tourist attractions. A boardwalk, with more than 100 shops and a variety of restaurants, combines with dolphin watching, shelling tours, boat rentals, parasailing and jet skiing to assure a one-stop destination. There’s even an alligator attraction where kids can get up close and personal with Florida’s native critter and actually feed and pet them.

Once known as “God’s waiting room,” St. Petersburg and its beaches is no longer for the “old and the ailing.” The median age of its residents is 39.3 and it has become the most popular vacation destination on Florida’s Gulf of Mexico.

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