By Kelly Smith
Times Staff Writer
Once long ago, Florida was a land without strip malls.
It was the early 20th century, when young architect M. Leo Elliott designed one Tampa landmark after another: old Tampa City Hall, Centro Asturiano, Cuban Club, Tampa Yacht Club, Ritz Theater, as well as many South Tampa, Bayshore and Davis Islands homes.
Elliott meticulously detailed that work in old-style pencil drawings, but for decades no one knew what happened to them — until thousands turned up in dusty old tubes in the attic of a Tampa consulting firm last year.
Now 12 of Elliott's intricate drawings — actually scans of the fragile originals — will be on exhibit for the first time. "The Built, The Lost, The Dream: The Architecture of M. Leo Elliott" opens at the Tampa Regional Artists' Old Hyde Park Arts Center on Friday and runs through July 8.
"In the 1920s Florida was still largely a frontier — one of the last — and Elliott was trying to create a Florida and specifically Tampa area architecture that reflected our local climate, history and culture," said Grant Rimbey, a project manager at Elements Architects in Tampa and a Temple Terrace preservationist. "It is important that these drawings be seen by the public. They clearly show that the Tampa region — and Florida — was not always the land of strip malls and unplanned sprawl."
There's a method to the title of the exhibition, said Kathy Durdin, first vice president of Tampa Regional Artists. "The Built" refers to the drawings that became some of Tampa's most recognized buildings (also on display will be artists' paintings based on Elliott's drawings). Pieces of rubble from demolished Elliott buildings, including the Tampa Gas Co., represent "The Lost." And "The Dream" refers to at least one drawing of a building that was never built, as the Depression set in. Elliott retired in 1950 and died in 1967.
Equal parts art and history, the show is a collaboration between the Tampa Bay History Center, where the drawings are stored, Tampa Regional Artists, the American Institute of Architects Tampa Bay Chapter, the USF School of Architecture and Tampa Preservation Inc.
The exhibition pays respect to a time when classic architecture, not theme parks, reigned in Florida, Rimbey said. "In a way I think the drawings help reveal a hidden Florida, what I would like to believe is the real Florida."
Information from Times files was used in this report.