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Here are the stories behind the Tampa Bay eyesores you love to hate

You’ve wondered about these odd local buildings and landmarks. Here’s how they got here.
Clockwise from top: Kiley Garden, the Sulphur Springs Water Tower, Tropicana Field and the Rivergate Tower. [Times archives]
Published Jan. 17
Updated Aug. 19

Tampa Bay is a weird area. Drive around town and you’ll find all sorts of funky structures. We have high rise condos. Bizarre sculptures and public art. Shiny silver minarets towering above the Hillsborough River.

I asked Times Instagram followers to submit their favorite eyesores around Tampa Bay. These are some of the responses. [screenshot | Instagram]

However, I wanted to pay tribute to the eyesores around town. The out-of-place buildings. The towers you think are strange. The structures that just don’t make sense. So I asked my Twitter followers to weigh in on the landmarks they loved to hate. I also posed the question on the Tampa Bay Times Facebook and Instagram accounts. And you guys delivered.

I set out to find out some background information about the most popular submissions. But as I combed through the Times archives to learn about the people and dreams behind these places, I started to feel a little sympathetic to some of them. It’s not so much that these structures are ugly. Rather, I think some of them are just removed from their original context, or are different from what we are used to seeing. That’s what makes them feel so odd.

So without further ado, here are your favorite eyesores from around the Tampa Bay area, and how they ended up here in the first place. I’m curious to hear if you’ll feel differently about them, too.

1. ConAgra flour mill

The mill is located at at 110 S. Nebraska Avenue. [Skip O'Rourke | Times

The 80,000-square-foot ConAgra flour mill currently grinds wheat and ships 1.5 million pounds of flour a day. It was built in 1938 during a time when the southern part of downtown Tampa was a thriving industrial district. But it has stuck out along the skyline ever since the 1990s, when development started to slowly transform the waterfront.

The mill won’t be a distraction for much longer. Strategic Property Partners, the development company launched by Jeff Vinik and Cascade Investment, purchased the eyesore for $13 million in October. Ardent Mills, a joint venture between ConAgra and two other agriculture companies, plans to move it out of downtown to 10 acres at Port Redwing near Apollo Beach by 2021.

“Had it stayed in place, ConAgra would have remained a jarring counter-note to Water Street Tampa’s plans to create a live-work-play neighborhood next door,” wrote Times business reporter Richard Danielson.

2. Sulphur Springs water tower

Sulphur Springs Water Tower. Photo from Eagle 8 by James Horan/WFLA

The Sulphur Springs water tower is an odd relic from long ago, and has been known to irk drivers traveling along I-275. The tower sticks out now, but it would have been right at home if things had gone as planned.

Developer Josiah Richardson spent $180,000 to construct the 214-foot-high water tower in 1927. According to a Jeff Klinkenberg article in the Times archives, the tower was supposed to be the centerpiece in an amusement park along the Hillsborough River. Nearby, Richardson also built a shopping arcade (Florida’s first mall!) as well as a water slide, bathhouse, hotel and alligator farm. The tower became an iconic landmark festooned on thousands of postcards, a symbol of beautiful Florida that tourists and locals mailed to their loved ones who were freezing in the North.

But after the Great Depression and the war squashed the tourism industry, Richardson lost his fortune. His beloved shopping arcade was demolished and a parking lot took its place, and the interstate was added. The area became a popular spot for teens to make out, but the tower was finally sealed after the fire department had to rescue kids who got stuck after climbing all the way to the top.

“Richardson died, and Tampa moved on. But the tower remained,” Klinkenberg wrote.


3.Rivergate Tower/ The Sykes Tower

Crystal L. Lauderdale | Times archives

Architect Harry Wolf was commissioned by the North Carolina National Bank to design the tower in downtown Tampa. It opened in 1988 and is still the only round building in downtown Tampa. According to the Rivergate website, the “distinctive cylindrical shape was meant to symbolize a lighthouse — sending out a brilliant beacon of economic light from downtown Tampa.” Tampa residents had other ideas about the curved shape, and instead lovingly refer to it as the “Beer Can Building.”

According to a 2006 Tampa Tribune story by Ellen Gedalius, every aspect of the tower’s design is linked to the Fibonacci sequence. This excerpt from her story explains how the design comes into play in the two cubes next to the tower:

“Needing a way to organize his design, Wolf chose the Fibonacci series, a mathematical system where the next number in the sequence is the sum of the previous two. The first several numbers in the series are 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8 and 13. As a result, the building’s exterior has five ridges; some of the squares on the cubes are 13 feet tall; the cubes are five stories high.”

The cubes next to the tower are designed to replicate the harsh edges of the city’s grid. Wolf designed 365 paving stones around the floor of the tower and mimicked the design on the ceiling.

“The idea is to make a building both simple and rich at the same time. It’s intended to be like a book you read on many levels,” Wolf told the Tribune. He also said he didn’t mind that the tower’s beer can nickname.

Quite a few readers were quick to namedrop the Rivergate Tower when asked about eyesores in Tampa Bay. But the structure does also have fans. And four years ago, one of them even dressed as the tower during a 5k.

Everything went fine for Tampa's Patrick Thorpe until he reached the finish line, where the height of the costume was too tall for the crossbeam of the finish line. Thorpe had to briefly exit the tower and tip it on its side to cross the line. [Photo courtesy of the Gasparilla Distance Classic | Times archives]

Local architect Patrick Thorpe built a 10-foot costume so that he could run the Gasparilla District Classic race as the building in 2015. Thorpe paid close attention to replicate details of the original tower, right down to the exact number of windows. He described his 3.1 mile run as hot, but manageable.

4. Kiley Garden

Kiley Garden [Todd L. Chappel | Times archives]

The plaza of concrete and grass between Curtis Hixon Park and the Rivergate Tower may be called an eyesore now, but Kiley Garden was once an internationally recognized piece of modernist design.

Landscape architect Dan Kiley designed the garden in the 1980s to complement the Rivergate Tower and the cubic pavilion that now houses the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts. Kiley collaborated with Rivergate Tower architect Harry Wolf to create what they hoped would be a “geometric design that would connect all the elements.” According to the Cultural Landscape Foundation, the checkerboard pattern seen in the Garden is based on the Fibonacci sequence.

North Carolina National Bank paid $3 million for the park, and the city of Tampa was responsible for having it built and maintained. When the city couldn’t keep up with the need to trim the trees, Friends of Kiley Garden was created.

In its heyday, the garden featured an amphitheater, fountains, reflecting pools, a glass-bottomed canal that ran parallel to Ashley Boulevard and a lush canopy of crape myrtles. But full-sized myrtles were planted instead of the dwarf crape myrtles that Kiley wanted, and the roots grew so densely that they eventually damaged the parking lot below. Water from the fountains leaked into the garage, raising concerns about a possible collapse in the future.

City of Tampa workers cut down the crape myrtle trees at Kiley Garden in 2006. [Jason Behnken | Times archives]

Mayor Pam Iorio’s administration spent $4.2 million to update the area in 2006, removing all of the trees and stopping the leaks. Members of the Friends of Kiley Garden hoped the trees could be removed and sold during the restoration process, but the machine needed to dig up the plants would have been too heavy to put on the park due to the old parking garage below. Instead, more than 100 trees were cut down in what city council member Linda Saul-Sena called a “tree massacre.” The city has not been able to secure funding needed to restore the lush canopy.

Still, the original design has been praised. In 2015, the Center for Architecture in New York hosted an exhibition called The Landscape of Dan Kiley curated by the Cultural Landscape Foundation. The traveling exhibition has been hosted by the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., the Boston Architectural College and will soon be on display at the University of California, Berkeley.

Also in 2015, a European architectural journal also named the original Kiley Garden as one of three premiere landscape designs of the ‘80s, Paul Guzzo reported.

5. The Skyline building

The curved building is located at 2600 Dr Martin Luther King Jr St. near downtown St. Petersburg. [Screenshot, Google maps]

This seven-story circular building near downtown St. Petersburg was built in 1961 for the Security Federal Saving and Loan Association. A Grow Financial Federal Credit Union branch was located here more recently, but a reader pointed out that it has since moved.

According to Times archives, this was the first South American architectural-style building in town. Chief designer Wenceslao Sarmiento was said to have been inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. The original structure featured a “skyline room” on the sixth floor where employees could dine and relax while viewing the St. Petersburg skyline.

The modern design of the building throws off some readers, but if you dig the style and are looking to lease office space, it looks like a few floors are available to rent.

6. Tropicana Field

Paul Lamison | Times archives

Originally called the Florida Suncoast Dome, Tropicana Field opened March 3, 1990. It was modeled after and designed by the same architects behind the Royals stadium in Kansas City.

At the time, the structure was the largest cable-supported dome in the world. The dome, slanted at a 6-1/2 degree angle, was designed to create a comfortable viewing experience in spite of Florida’s rough baseball season weather. Thunderstorms, lightning strikes, scorching heat and waves of humidity wouldn’t be able to disturb fans.

Times digital sports editor Frank Pastor wrote a list of all the good things about the Trop, including the fact that the roof "creates the effect of a spaceship about to rocket into the sky.” But over the years, people have found a lot of reasons to complain about the dome, from the weird acoustics to the catwalks that can mess with gameplay. And many of our readers simply don’t like the way it looks.

Updates: Since the original publication, this story has been updated with new details. The building on MLK Street used to house Grow Financial, but the branch moved to a different location on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. St. N. in September 2018. Nord Wennerstrom of The Cultural Landscape Foundation sent additional information about the Dan Kiley exhibit and flagged me on outdated information in one of the Kiley Garden captions, which has since been removed. And several readers, including former Tampa Tribune writer Ellen Gedalius, shared the details about the Riverview Tower’s Fibonacci sequence. Thank you to everyone who reached out.

Did we miss anything? Are there any other weird buildings in town you want me to look into? Let me know in the comments.

Information for this story came from the Times archives. Times senior researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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