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‘What the heck is that?’ Tampa Bay’s curious roadside oddities, past and present, explained.

You’ve wondered what the deal is with these dinosaurs, murals and sculptures around town. Here’s what they are and how they got there.
Clockwise from left: A pink dinosaur in Hernando County, a lizard made of car parts in St. Petersburg and the Airstream trailer graveyard that used to be seen by I-4 are all iconic Tampa Bay area landmarks.
Published Jul. 23
2001 Odyssey is a Tampa strip club that has taken on landmark status because of the orb that sits atop its roof. Times.

Last week we brought you the story behind the bulbous, glowing spaceship perched atop the roof of 2001 Odyssey. Turns out the Tampa strip club’s landmark has quite the past — it’s a rare Futuro house, a spaceship-like creation designed by a Finnish architect in the 1960s.

READ MORE: That spaceship on top of a Tampa strip club? It was supposed to be the home of the future.

The Futuro has been turning heads on Dale Mabry Highway for nearly 50 years, but it’s not the only peculiar site you’ll wonder about while driving through the Tampa Bay area. We reached out to readers on our Facebook page, Twitter and on several local Facebook groups to see what other local oddities they’ve always been curious about.

Most of the attractions are still around. Some have unfortunately been demolished. And for some reason, an astonishing amount of submissions were dinosaur-themed.

MORE STRANGE LANDMARKS: We asked, you answered: Here are the eyesores you love to hate, from the Sulphur Springs Water Tower to the Trop.

Here are the stories behind some of your favorite roadside mysteries, past and present.

That giant metal lizard you’ve probably driven past on I-275 in St. Pete

Security Lizard, seen in St. Petersburg. (Times)

Recognize the giant metallic reptile that is permanently flicking its tongue out to catch a bug? That’s Security Lizard, the work of late St. Pete artist Paul Eppling.

Eppling turned everyday items into fantastical sculptures, transforming garden tools and lawnmowers into gators, birds and more. Security Lizard, for example, was created using license plates and other car parts. It was affixed to the roof of the St. Petersburg Fleet Maintenance building, where it can be seen by passing drivers.

St. Petersburg metal sculpture artist Paul Eppling in his home workshop and studio. He called the scrap metal outside his studio his "palette." Times (2006)

Eppling died at age 67 from progressive supranuclear palsy in 2016. But his memory lives on. Eppling’s work can be spotted around town, from his hulking armadillos at Boyd Hill Nature Trail to his falcon sculpture at Bay Point Middle School.

All those oranges painted around Dunedin

Photo of one of the numerous orange murals painted by Steve Spathelf. Times (2011)

Thank local artist Steve Spathelf and business owner Marsha Goins for the citrus explosion around Dunedin. Back in 2009, the pair sneaked around town early in the morning to paint the oranges on the outside of buildings.

Why oranges? Spathelf was inspired by vintage crate labels and Dunedin’s past life as a citrus town. Times archives say the plentiful groves once dominated over half the town.

Dunedin has more than 100 orange murals now. Folks around town loved the surprise artwork so much that local business owners and leaders even created the annual Dunedin Orange Festival.

The “living volcano” in St. Petersburg’s Warehouse Arts district

The glowing red character near the new Daddy Kool Records location? That’s CANO, a sculpture by local artist James Oleson for the 2017 SHINE Mural Festival.

Oleson described himself on the St. Pete Arts Alliance website as a “modern day street alchemist, making beauty in the rubble.” CANO isn’t his only eye-catching piece — his paintings and sculptures can be found all around St. Pete. He’s responsible for the portraits that greet drivers exiting Interstate 375. His 3D characters also adorn the side of Overflow Brewing.

A fowl statue that’s been a Tampa fixture for nearly three decades

"The Exploding Chicken" at its former location on the corner of Ashley Street and Kennedy Boulevard. Times (2005)

Back in 1985, NationsBank (since renamed Bank of America) hired George Sugarman to make this piece of art.

Sugarman never gave his creation a name. After his piece was placed by Kennedy Boulevard and Ashley Drive, Tampa Tribune columnist Steve Otto called it the “Exploding Chicken," and the nickname stuck.

The piece’s location changed after the neighboring Rivergate Tower was sold in 2010. The building’s new owners donated the statue to the city of Tampa. It collected dust in storage for three years until it was reinstalled in the middle of the roundabout on Channelside Drive. You can still visit the piece now, exploding just north of the Florida Aquarium.

Those trailers that used to stick out of the ground off I-4

Frank Bates used to own this display along I-4. Times (2008)

Though the Airstream Ranch was demolished a few years ago, the memory of this strange local Stonehenge lives on in our hearts. The eight trailers used to protrude from a stretch of I-4 between Tampa and Orlando.

RV dealership owner Frank Bates dreamed up the display in January 2007. The trailers came from a Spring Hill junkyard.

Hillsborough County officials quickly made it clear that they wanted the attraction removed. Bates was even hit with $100-per-day fines after Hillsborough County Code Enforcement said his landmark violated zoning. After a three-year battle, a judge finally deemed Airstream Ranch legal.

In 2013, Bates sold his dealership and the property where Airstream Ranch was located. The shiny trailers continued to delight motorists until 2017, when Magnum Demolition was hired to clear the land for an Airstream dealership.

Bates sold his RV center, and the installation was dismantled in 2017. ANDRES LEIVA | Times

The ark-like structure near Dinosaur World

This Plant City building isn’t actually a boat, but something about its shape has led people to refer to it as “that ark on I-4” ever since construction started in 2007.

A 2008 Tampa Tribune interview with owner George Hansen revealed that the structure was supposed to be a war memorial. Records show that the building’s intended use was at one point a “golf gift shop." Dinosaur World employees nearby heard rumors of a restaurant. One Reddit user, who claims to have inspected the septic tank, said it would be a Noah’s Ark museum. The building’s designer, Edrahim Mehrani, told a Tampa Tribune reporter in 2008, “We still are not sure what the final use will be.”

It has been more than a decade since the mysterious ark appeared, but property records indicate that the building is still vacant. A Times reporter recently called the number associated with the property record. A woman who answered said the information about the structure was a “private matter” and hung up.

This enormous boot

Beloved footwear at the Shoppes at Boot Ranch. (Times)

Shoppers at the Boot Ranch strip mall in East Lake are familiar with this 17-foot tall concrete boot.

The man behind the oversized footwear was wealthy rancher Al Boyd. Boyd’s father wanted to add a boot-shaped brand to the family’s trucks to promote their ranch. Al thought a gigantic statue would be more effective. In 1951, he had the frame welded at a Dunedin shop and parked it by Tampa Road and East Lake Road.

The boot became a beloved landmark. It was relocated to the Shoppes at Boot Ranch after the strip mall was added in 1989 and has been there ever since.

And finally, a smattering of dinosaurs

We’re not just talking about Dinosaur World. For some reason, the Tampa Bay area has quite a few prehistoric-themed curiosities (especially in Hernando County).

This prehistoric mini golf mascot that used to hang out in St. Petersburg

Dino, the concrete dinosaur that once stood by the side of 66th Street North in St. Petersburg. Times (2002)

Dino the dinosaur first appeared at St. Petersburg’s Sir Goony Golf and Go-Karts on 66th Street N. in 1966. It used to guard the mini golf course’s sixth hole. When the course eventually shuttered, Dino remained.

In 2002, T-N-T Racing opened next to the old dinosaur, but that business closed, too. Roadside America reported that the dinosaur was removed in 2015.

The dinosaur that houses Harold’s Auto Center

Christopher Rainey rolls tires into one of the bays at Harold's Auto Station the end of the day. The building is 47 feet tall and 110 feet long. Times (2003)

Driving north toward Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, it’s hard to miss Harold’s Auto Station. The Spring Hill repair shop on U.S. 19 is located inside a 47-foot tall reptilian relic.

The whimsical building first opened as a Sinclair gas station at 5299 Commercial Way in 1964. The owner, William Wilkis, chose the shape to reference the Apatosaurus in Sinclair Oil’s logo.

A photo from the Times archives shows the dinosaur just south of Weeki Wachee at the halfway point of construction. "I've never had so much fun building anything in my life," said William Wilkis of New Port Richey. Times (1964)

In 1977, Harold Hurst bought the building and opened Harold’s Auto inside the concrete dinosaur. The family owned and operated garage still conducts business at this location.

“Although we are inside a dinosaur we stay up to date with what your vehicle needs!” reads the business’ website.

The bubblegum pink dino in Spring Hill

The pink dinosaur, a sentinel roadside landmark, stands 22-ft. tall and is 58ft. long. Times.

Just down the road from Harold’s Auto Station is another well-known prehistoric creature. Despite being featured in the 1990 edition of the Encyclopedia of Bad Taste, this dinosaur is still beloved in Spring Hill.

Jacob Foxbower crafted the concrete dinosaur, thinking the shape and pink color would draw visitors to his Foxbower Wildlife Museum. His collection of over 1,200 deformed taxidermy animals wasn’t very popular and closed by 1998. Foxbower’s oldest son sold the property to a doctor.

Businesses by the landmark have come and gone, from a barber shop to a fudge factory. But even with the changes — and multiple vandalism attempts — the dinosaur remains.

Scott Hummel paints the Spring Hill dinosaur's nails "Pepto-Bismol" pink. The dinosaur had a makeover in 2015. It cost about $1,500 to repaint the creature and fix damage to its neck and tail. Times (2015)

The headless Brontosaurus in Brooksville

This enigmatic dinosaur stands at 15 feet tall, with a body that stretches 57 feet (tail included).

“The chest and stomach cavity is large enough to accommodate a compact car,” said one St. Petersburg Times article.

Brooksville’s headless statue was created by August Herwede. Times archives say Herwede built nearly 30 concrete animals around his Hernando County home. In the late 1960s, he fell from scaffolding while working on a Brontosaurus sculpture. Herwede was hospitalized for two broken legs and died shortly after. His final creation was never finished.

In the late ’80s, there was talk of bringing the creature to the Great Explorations Children’s Museum in St. Petersburg, but that plan fell through. You can still see the dinosaur while driving down State Road 476 near Lake Lindsey.

***

We asked members of the I Love St. Pete and Tampa!!! BORN AND RAISED AND I REMEMBER WHEN.... Facebook groups to tell us which landmarks and roadside attractions they were curious about. But we’re not done yet.

If you’re still interested in learning about a local landmark, tell us about it in the comments. You can also submit any question about the Tampa Bay area to Florida Wonders, a series where Times reporters answer reader inquiries.

This report was compiled using Times archives.

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