WEST SHORE — The loneliest memorial sits in Tampa's busiest business district, ignored by thousands of drivers but no longer neglected.
It's a marble and granite pillar topped by an eagle several feet tall that appears as worn as you'd expect it to having faced 90 years of humidity, rain and scorching sun.
Within the past several months, the city has laid new sidewalk between circles and pockets of mulch where yellow and purple flowers grow. The $80,000 project is intended to draw gazers to the memorial.
This isn't your typical spot for a miniature city park, though. It's nestled in the busy West Shore district, at the point where Memorial Highway and Kennedy Boulevard meet.
Few people walk around here — crossing the highway would be dangerous. Most go from car to work in one of the nearby office towers or from car to the mall.
So why a memorial park here? Why now?
Transportation officials and historians say the answers have everything to do with a famous ribbon of road that's being erased over time.
The story behind the monument begins in 1921 and "one of the most significant activities in Hillsborough County," according to Tampa Rotary records that the Florida Department of Transportation provided.
That was the year Memorial Highway was dedicated. It stretched 13.5 miles from Howard Avenue to the Pinellas County line and was considered one of Florida's finest highways. Tampa Rotarians lined both sides of the road with oaks and oleanders.
The roadway honored Hillsborough County veterans who had died in World War I, and Italian immigrant August R. Fox sculpted two identical monuments with the names of 105 men and one women. The twin memorials were placed at each end of the highway.
The Shrine Band of Egypt Temple, members of the American Legion and a platoon of Fort Dade soldiers marched on the highway during a giant dedication ceremony. The first 106 men each carried a wreath, laying it at the base of the monument at Howard. The Women of the Red Cross rode in cars while several Army planes flew in formation overhead. National newspapers, films and magazines featured the event, the first memorial of its kind.
By 1963, however, a population boom and expanded infrastructure pushed the twin monuments to the background. Expressways and the expansion of Tampa International Airport chopped up Memorial Highway, and the monument on the Pinellas side in Oldsmar was moved to Tampa, in a triangular park on Memorial Highway just north of Kennedy Boulevard where State Road 60 begins.
Then, in 1999, road expansion saw the monument moved again, this time just south of Kennedy near 5100 W Kennedy Blvd. — where it stands today. (Its twin was also relocated a couple of times through the years, before coming to its present location on the grounds of the American Legion Cemetery on Kennedy Boulevard.)
The Tampa Rotary hoped the West Shore spot would develop into a park with other war monuments. But that never happened.
Instead, Hillsborough County dedicated space for a Veterans Memorial Park and Museum on U.S. 301 N. In 2009, the city of Tampa dedicated Heroes Plaza, commemorating slain veterans, firefighters and law enforcement officers, at Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park near the St. Pete Times Forum.
Authorities began to notice the West Shore monument again because it lies in a major gateway of Tampa, an area the city and Florida Department of Transportation want to spruce up.
In 2010, the Kennedy Boulevard Enhancement Project began, stretching from Memorial Highway to Woodlynne Avenue. The project installed sidewalks around the memorial and on the north side of Kennedy by the WestShore mall. Workers also fixed area sidewalks in disrepair. They added pedestrian ramps, about a dozen bus shelter pads and decorative crosswalks at major intersections along Kennedy. Landscaping and irrigation projects are almost finished.
In total, the project costs $1 million, all of which is being reimbursed to the city by the DOT, said David Vaughn, Tampa's contracts administration director.
Authorities say the $80,000 going toward the World War I monument is worth it to preserve a piece of history.
So is anyone noticing?
"I'm surprised to hear this one is still there," said Dave DeLong, 77, past department commander of the American Legion for the state of Florida. "I go down that road all the time and don't know what you're talking about. But I believe you when you say there's one there."
Reach Justin George at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]