ST. PETERSBURG — If you’ve cruised down Fourth Street North recently, you may have seen a startling sight: bulldozers and piles of dirt where Sunken Gardens’ retro-looking welcome sign once stood tall.
Don’t worry: Sunken Gardens isn’t doing away with having an iconic sign on the side of the street. The roadside attraction at 1825 Fourth St. N is currently replacing its sign to more closely resemble the original flower-filled sign from the 1960s, said the supervisor of the St. Petersburg landmark.
Here’s what to know about the switch.
1. The new sign is a throwback to the original
The landmark location first opened in 1911, when plumber and avid gardener George Turner Sr. purchased just over 4 acres that included a shallow lake he drained to form his private “sunken” garden. It went on to become one of the area’s best-known roadside attractions.
Manton Giles, who died in 1999, designed the Sunken Gardens sign that was likely installed in 1960 and built by the venerable Ace Neon sign company. A new, similar sign with bright blue 40-inch letters was installed in March 2003. It used the original poles that have held up the sign since the ‘60s.
The original poles were in need of replacement, said Sunken Gardens supervising director Dwayne Biggs, so the city agreed to use the opportunity to update the sign with neon and LED lights.
The new sign will keep the V-shaped chevron mark, as well the 320-square-foot sign’s 40-inch letters. The update will also bring back the tumble of flowers on the side, which were taken down in recent years because of structural issues.
“You don’t see signs like that anymore,” Biggs said.
2. The new sign may be done soon
Demolition kicked off earlier in February and involved pulling down the sign and removing concrete wedged 8 to 10 feet deep in the ground.
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“(There are) two pieces of machinery out there, removing concrete that’s been sitting on the ground with rebar since 1960-ish,” Biggs said. “That was the good old days when concrete steel was the best of the best. So it’s definitely been a challenge getting that out.”
While the design and installation of the sign is complicated, the city is still optimistic that the new one will be installed by the end of this week.
“As you know with projects like this and stuff that’s been around for a long time, you discover some things that may push you back a little bit,” Biggs said. “But right now it’s going really well.”
3. The sign tradition has come with ups and downs
The Turner family installed the iconic sign to draw visitors to their roadside attraction. But maintaining it wasn’t always easy.
“The Turner family said there was a history of always something going wrong with it,” said Jennifer Tyson, education and volunteer coordinator for Sunken Gardens. “You had all these mechanical parts, and as beautiful as it was to see the neon flowers bloom to life at night ... they’re very difficult to maintain, especially with the elements that we’re dealing with here in Florida.”
Heat, humidity and storms all take their toll, making preservation a bigger challenge.
“They definitely take a lot of love and resources to keep going,” Tyson said.
Even before the sign was replaced 20 years ago, the Turners swapped out the flowers several times over the years. The sign was modified to promote new features within the gardens, including toucans, the Kachunga & the Alligator Show and the King of Kings Wax Museum. Those elements are long gone, but visitors can learn more about them in the new history center at Sunken Gardens.
4. There’s a push to preserve more historic signs around town
Sunken Gardens is lucky. Nowadays, most businesses around St. Petersburg have to adhere to more modest signage requirements.
“Generally, today’s sign regulations don’t allow that height and size of sign,” said Elizabeth Abernathy, the city’s director of planning and development services. “We do have a special provision in our code for historic signs.”
Flashy neon signs once ruled busy thoroughfares like Fourth Street North and U.S. 19. But businesses have moved away from them over the years, said Derek Kilborn, who manages the city’s Urban Planning and Historic Preservation Division.
St. Petersburg transitioned from more of a pedestrian experience to a vehicle-oriented one. And when newer, brighter, easier-to-maintain materials emerged, the older methods fell out of favor.
The city is now working on ways to keep its iconic signs of the past around.
“We’re seeing a resurgence in interest in midcentury design and architecture, and so that has put a spotlight on these types of designs,” Kilborn said.
In 2012, St. Pete adopted a new section of its codes to encourage the preservation of signs of historic significance. In 2016, the Community Planning and Preservation Commission created an inventory of such signs, including those made for places like El Cap Restaurant, Biff Burger, Derby Lane and the Sandman Motel.
If signs are included in the inventory, owners get more wiggle room than most to tweak or display them. This initiative is what allowed the World Liquors sign on Central Avenue to be updated and installed outside of Ferg’s Sports Bar, Kilborn said. It’s also what is allowing Sunken Gardens to carry on its tradition.
5. The project is not cheap
The project by Thomas Sign & Awning of Clearwater, which also designed the new St. Pete Pier’s retro signs, has taken about a year and will cost $180,000.
Once a privately owned attraction, Sunken Gardens became city property in 1999 after voters approved its purchase. The $2.9 million cost came from a one-time property tax assessment.
The effort and money will be worth it, Tyson said.
“It’s very similar to the response we got in 2003, which was people at first were concerned it was coming down ... and then such relief and excitement,” Tyson said. “It’s honestly been one of the most popular things we’ve ever posted on our social media in the last several years. People are just really thankful that we’re preserving a big part of St. Petersburg’s history.”
NOTE: This report has been updated to correct that Sunken Gardens was first opened in 1911.