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Relatives of Pier's architect mourn its imminent demise

ST. PETERSBURG — The great-granddaughter of the man who gave the city its iconic inverted pyramid made a pilgrimage to his unique pier this month. The infant may never remember her visit, but her family's collection of construction drawings and meticulously organized scrapbooks will help tell the story of Bill Harvard Sr.'s work. The 40-year-old structure will close Friday. This summer will likely see it demolished. At the corporate office of Harvard Jolly, the St. Petersburg firm founded by his late father, Bill Harvard Jr. chose his words carefully to talk about the impending loss. "We're disappointed," he said. His brother Lee was less reticent. "It's a tough personal issue," he said. "It's a really key architectural monument in the history of St. Petersburg, and it's an important building in our time and emulated in other parts of the world. The loss of someone close to you and their legacy is difficult emotionally. I am afraid that this important legacy will not be replaced, or replaced by something less appropriate."

Neither the brothers nor their sister, Susan — who all followed their father into architecture — attended the 1973 opening.

The architect's granddaughter, though, has a treasured memento from that day, a key chain with the logo of the new Pier.

"It was my grandmother's, Leila B. Harvard," Maria Harvard Rawls said. The wife of the Pier's architect always carried it with her.

The Landmark

The five-story inverted pyramid opened for business on Jan. 15, 1973, but the Saturday before was for celebrating.

Linda Butler remembers it well. Marriott Corp. had won the contract to manage the new Pier and her late husband, Norman, was general manager.

"There was a huge parade," Butler recalled. "It was an exciting time."

Not everyone was impressed with the design of the new Pier. A letter to the editor likened it to an "upside-down cake" and another, to "a pigeon roost."

But the architect said it might have been his best building yet.

"People may think it's a forced shape, but the concept is so logical, there is nothing forced about it," he said.

The Pier's unique shape was no mere affectation, but influenced by a budget, pilings dating to the 1920s Million Dollar Pier, and the building's anticipated function, he explained. The structure was designed to rest on four massive 17- by 17-foot caissons driven into the bay bottom. He also wanted plenty of enclosed, revenue-producing viewing space high up and open space at the ground level for sitting, strolling and fishing.

"There was a lot of emphasis on the view and the relationship with the water," son Bill Harvard Jr. said.

But the design did not sustain initial hopes for the Pier's financial success. David Metz, the city's director of downtown enterprise facilities, said the inverted pyramid has always been subsidized.

"And the subsidy has increased," he said.

The Million Dollar Pier, spoken of fondly by longtime residents, also required a subsidy, according to records from the 1950s, Metz said.

The inverted pyramid's annual subsidy has averaged $1.4 million over the past decade.

In a 1981 interview, the Pier's architect blamed mismanagement and the way the building was being used for its financial difficulties. A series of managers couldn't turn things around.

In 1986, the building was closed for a major renovation with a new designer. The $12 million project included an expansion of the first floor and the addition of a glass elevator.

The refurbished structure reopened in August 1988. Small shops were added to the first floor, and the Pier Aquarium moved in on the second. The Columbia restaurant settled in on the fourth floor and opened its Cha Cha Coconuts on the fifth.

A first-year operating deficit, though, tripled to $1.2 million.

The 21st century brought more bad news for the Tampa Bay landmark. In 2004 residents learned that the Pier approach and the area surrounding the building would have to be replaced within 10 years. The estimated cost would be $25 million to $40 million.

In 2006, city officials announced plans for a $50 million restoration but four years later voted for demolition and starting anew.

A Los Angeles firm, Michael Maltzan Architecture, won an international design competition to replace the aging Pier. The Maltzan design, called the Lens, was hailed by admirers as another Wonder of the World. Detractors, though, disparaged the creation as "a sidewalk to nowhere."

Piers and controversy

The history of piers on St. Petersburg's waterfront dates to 1889. The Railroad Pier came first, followed by the Brantley Pier, Tomlinson Pier, Electric Pier, the first Municipal Pier and the Million Dollar Pier.

The inverted pyramid was christened with a straightforward name — the Pier.

Controversy has been the one constant throughout the 114-year tradition of St. Petersburg piers, fueled by civic pride and duty, power and wealth, politics, financial concerns and residents' demands to be heard.

Consider:

• In 1925, businessman C.B. Welsh threatened legal action to prevent the city from spending money left over from the contract for what would become the Million Dollar Pier.

• With demolition of the dilapidated Million Dollar Pier imminent in 1967, "Save our Pier" proponents pleaded with the City Council for a reprieve.

• The site once occupied by the demolished Million Dollar Pier remained bare for almost three years as council members determined what should replace it and how it would be financed.

• Now the plan to replace the current Pier has ignited a new feud, involving three obvious factions: those who want to save the inverted pyramid, others who loathe its proposed replacement, and others who trumpet the new plans.

• An August referendum could scuttle plans for the new Pier, filling some with trepidation that history is about to repeat itself and the city will go years without a signature waterfront landmark.

Bidding adieu

The digital age brought Brandon Mann and his wife, Cassidy, to the 1973 Pier. After connecting on eHarmony, it's where they had their first date almost three years ago.

It's sad to see the Pier close, Cassidy said, and to not have "the ability to continue to make memories at a spot that holds such a special place in our lives."

The loss is more profound for the family of the Pier's architect.

"It's always been a source of pride for all of us," grandson Billy Harvard said.

For his sister Maria, "It's almost like a mourning."

With 3-month-old Kali in her arms, she watched recently as decades-old construction drawings of the Pier were unfurled.

The infant slept on, but Maria hopes her daughter will come to cherish pictures of their last visit to the inverted pyramid that once was.

Material from "The Making of St. Petersburg" by Will Michaels and Tampa Bay Times archives was used in this report. Times staff writer Mary Jane Park and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this article. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

Relatives of Pier's architect mourn its imminent demise 05/25/13 [Last modified: Sunday, May 26, 2013 2:27am]

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