Sunday, August 19, 2018
Human Interest

Monstrous St. Petersburg sign: right words; wrong message

The city wanted a sign saying St. Petersburg out on the Pinellas County side of the Howard Frankland Bridge. It just couldn't afford it. Local businessman Bill Edwards did a few things. He paid for it. He decided it had to be huge, because "if you're going to put up a sign," he reasoned, "put up a sign." And he wanted it to be finished in time for the Republican National Convention in August so those thousands of visiting strangers would see it and know where they were. It was nice of him to do all that.

It's important to have municipal markers. They're declarations of existence.

This one? It's really big. That's the first thing everybody says. Plenty of people like it like that. But size isn't everything.

So I called three architecture experts at the University of South Florida and asked about the $600,000, 75-foot-tall, LED-lit, Mediterranean Revival-style, hurricane-resistant, copper-capped tower that can be seen from the windows of approaching planes. Here's what I heard: It's better than a plain green DOT sign … maybe. It's better than nothing … probably. But it's strange. It's tacky. It's regional and historical hodgepodge. It's pastiche. It's "MedRev" mishmash. It's an imitation of an imitation. It's trying too hard. It borders on kitsch. It looks artificial. It looks cheap even though it's not. It looks like it will weather badly. It looks like something from Celebration or Lakewood Ranch or some other instant nowhere, or the entrance to an apartment complex, or a gateway to an outlet mall. It looks like lots of things. Which is the problem.

Some people shrug their shoulders. Some people speed right past it. But the thing about a sign that says WELCOME is that it says so much more. It's not easy to capture in a single structure the complexities of an interesting place. Granted. But St. Petersburg is an interesting place. It's not just a haven for the elderly. It's not just Not Tampa. Not anymore. It has open and attractive waterfront walkways and fine art museums and inviting spots to eat and drink in a downtown Tampa envies. This new sign? The only thing that says St. Petersburg is the letters themselves.

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