TAMPA — Historic buildings at the heart of the city had been replaced by parking lots, and the once-elegant Floridan Hotel had become a flophouse. ¶ Downtown, once a bustling hub of music and culture, had transitioned into a sterile workplace, filling during the day and emptying at night, devoid of the shoppers and pedestrians that were once commonplace. ¶ It was 1984, but lawyers Robin and Tony Cunningham saw hope for downtown. A building boom was under way on the south end. They figured it would sweep north, and the couple started buying property on vacant N Franklin Street.
They bought a boarded-up building, which they planned to turn into a law office. And they purchased an artistic fountain for $25,000, similar to one Robin remembered seeing years ago as a college student studying in France.
They donated the fountain to the city of Tampa, which installed it on N Franklin Street, next to the building the Cunninghams had bought, along with a plaque thanking the couple.
But downtown's cultural renaissance would take its own sweet time, and N Franklin Street remained dormant for decades.
Over the past few years, new bars, businesses, a giant waterfront park and two new museums have sprung up downtown, drawing thousands of residents into new lofts and high-rises. People are once again living and walking around downtown — just as Robin had hoped three decades ago.
The fountain, she figured, would be part of the transformation.
But last month it disappeared without a trace.
"It was just a disappointment for me to see it gone. It had so many memories and meant so many things. I used to take my son and daughter there," she said. "We just wanted to do something beautiful for that area and downtown because I always dreamed that Tampa would have a downtown with art and music."
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Over the years, the fountain had fallen on hard times. Homeless people had used it to wash up. The old Albany Hotel building the Cunninghams bought was in such disrepair it could never be rehabilitated. A fire in 2007 burned it down.
Fire also destroyed the pump and electrical building for the fountain, city spokeswoman Ali Glisson said. The city spent years afterward hand pumping and cleaning out the tiered pools, but the giant lip around the fountain that served as seating was crumbling. Residents and businesses asked for its removal, Glisson said.
With the Republican National Convention around the corner, the fountain became part of the city's cleanup.
City officials initially told the Times that they contacted the Cunninghams before removing the fountain. But the couple divorced years ago, and Tony Cunningham died in 2009. Robin Lane had remarried.
Bob McDonaugh, Tampa economic opportunity administrator, later said the city couldn't find Robin Lane, who officials thought had moved to New York.
"We did save the fountain," he said. "I'm pretty sure we have the plate. We would be happy to send it to Ms. Lane."
The city had stored the fountain in the event it could be repaired and relocated, Glisson said, though she noted that there is no funding to do so right now.
Lane, 64, who often spends weeks in New York but lives in a condominium on Bayshore Boulevard working on art litigation cases, said she should have been easy to find.
"My name is in the phone book," she said. "I don't think I'm very hard to find."
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After a few weeks of phone tag, Lane reached the city. She told McDonaugh she wanted the plaque for her daughter to remind her of Tony Cunningham.
McDonaugh told Lane that he would send it to her daughter.
As for the fountain, Robin Lane's not sure she wants it back. She doesn't have a truck big enough to haul it away, and her husband joked that their living room is too small for it. She wonders if it could be fixed up and put up somewhere downtown. It's something she will discuss with the city soon.
"I would like the fountain put back where it was," she said.
She noted that the cobblestone streets and brick sidewalks on N Franklin Street look great with the old-fashioned streetlamps the city has installed.
She always figured the fountain would be part of the city's plans.
"I assumed at some time they were going to repair that with all the improvements they were doing everywhere," she said.
Instead, she feels punished for believing in downtown too soon.
Justin George can be reached at jg[email protected] or (813) 226-3368.