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As the new St. Pete Pier opens, a look back at piers of the past

The St. Petersburg pier tradition goes back over 130 years.

ST. PETERSBURG — The long-anticipated St. Pete Pier will open July 6. Before visiting the new structure, here’s a primer on St. Petersburg’s pier tradition, which goes back over 130 years.

Related: St. Petersburg’s new 26-acre Pier District was not a smooth or quick project

The city’s first pier was built in 1889. After John C. Williams persuaded Russian nobleman Peter Demens to bring the Orange Belt Railway to the area, effectively creating St. Petersburg, Demens’ company built the Detroit Hotel and the Railroad Pier.

This photo shows the view looking down the Railroad Pier toward the bayfront. [ State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory (circa 1903) ]
A sailing ship is shown near the Railroad Pier as men fish. The pier was built to ease transportation of goods between Orange Belt Railway trains and sea vessels. [ Florida Memory (1903) ]

According to stpetersburgpier.com, the wooden structure was close to the railroad depot and stretched 3,000 feet into the waters of Tampa Bay. The rail on the pier eased transportation of goods between trains and sea vessels. Today, waterfront park Demens Landing is located on the site of the old pier. It still bears the name of the man who brought the railroad here.

Related: How do you say Demens Landing? Bearss? Wimauma? Here's our local pronunciation guide.

Other piers soon followed. Boat builder D.F.S. Brantley had the Brantley Pier constructed at Second Avenue N in 1896. Another pier, the Fountain of Youth Pier, a.k.a. the Tomlinson Pier, was built nearby in 1901. According to stpetersburgpier.com, the name came from an artesian well drilled at the base by pier founder Edwin Tomlinson, who claimed that its waters were “miraculously restorative.”

The Brantley Pier was demolished and replaced with the Electric Pier in 1905. Visitors were able to ride to the end of the structure on an electric trolley for the first time.

A postcard shows a steamer landing at the Municipal Recreation Pier in St. Petersburg. [ THE STATE LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA | State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory (1914) ]

The Municipal Recreation Pier was added by the city in 1913. But it — and the other piers — were badly damaged by the 1921 hurricane, which also toppled the bandstand at Williams Park and flooded the yacht club.

Rebuilding the Municipal Recreation Pier after the 1921 hurricane. [ HANDOUT | Photo courtesy of Florida State Archive. ]

The city went on to replace the Municipal Recreation Pier with the Million Dollar Pier. Despite the name, the project was completed under budget at $998,729. The 1,400-foot-long pier, ending in the Mediterranean Revival-style Casino, opened on Thanksgiving Day in 1926 to a crowd of over 10,000.

St. Petersburg's Million Dollar Pier, dedicated in 1926. [ Courtesy of the St. Petersburg Historical Society ]

For nearly half a century, this pier drew crowds. People swam at Spa Beach and Spa Pool, sunbathed in the nude at the Municipal Solarium and danced in the ballroom of the pier’s Casino building.

This sign made sure that everyone knew the nude sunbathing spot by the Million Dollar Pier in St. Petersburg was for medicinal purposes only. [ JACK RAMSDELL, BOB MORELAND | St. Petersburg Times ]
An undated publicity postcard shows the Million Dollar Pier. [ Times (undated) ]
The Million Dollar Pier as it looked in 1946 as dancers throng the ballroom. [ Times (1946) ]

But not everyone was permitted to enjoy the pier. Black people were only allowed if they were working. In 1955, a year after Brown v. Board of Education established that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, Black people were still barred from Spa Beach and Spa Pool. Physician Dr. Fred W. Alsup and several others successfully filed a lawsuit against the city to force integration of Spa Beach and Spa Pool. In 1957, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. However, St. Petersburg closed the beach and pool several times in 1958 to stop Black people from visiting.

On June 5, 1958, a group of eight black youths went for a swim at the whites-only Spa Beach in St. Petersburg. They were exercising a legal right granted them in 1957 by the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to hear the city's appeal of a federal court ruling giving blacks access to the beach and facilities. [ Times (1958) ]

The Million Dollar Pier Casino was demolished in 1967, the same year St. Pete’s green benches were banned as the city grasped at a more youthful image. For five years, the pier head was left bare but for a waterfront park.

After multiple delays, the five-story inverted-pyramid pier rose in 1973. It cost about $4 million — $2 million over budget. It was simply called “The Pier.”

St. Petersburg's Pier took shape and form under hot September skies in 1970 as workmen assembled the big building's skeleton. The new facility replaced the famous old Million Dollar Pier Casino in 1973. [ Times (1970) ]
In this early 1970s handout photo, architects pore over pier plans as the inverted pyramid rises behind them. [ Times (undated) ]

Why the distinct shape? Partners Blanchard Jolly and William B. Harvard Sr., architects responsible for other notable structures like the Williams Park bandshell, designed it with function in mind. The pair wanted to maximize space at the pier’s high point, where people could enjoy a splendid view, while preserving open space for pedestrians below. The shape was also more budget-friendly: The pyramid would only need pilings under the center of the building.

A postcard circa 1973 shows the St. Petersburg Pier known for its inverted-pyramid shape. [ STATE LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES OF FLORIDA ]
Tourists enjoy the view of downtown St. Petersburg from the observation deck of the pier in 2013. [ CHRIS URSO | CHRIS URSO | Times ]

The pier opening in January 1973 was celebrated with a parade. Reception was mixed. Letters to the editor compared the structure to a “pigeon roost” and an “upside-down cake.” The Washington Post called it “that unhappy pyramid.” But some Floridians loved it. There are still T-shirts bearing the old pier sold around St. Pete today.

Harvard explained his design to the then-St. Petersburg Times in 1981: “A building has to have a certain uniqueness. Otherwise it’s just a warehouse.”

Financial woes plagued the pier. It closed for renovations in 1986, reopening in 1988 with a glass elevator, shops on the first floor and an aquarium on the second. Restaurants were added on the fourth and fifth floors.

Then a 2004 engineering study showed that the original 1920s-era pier head and approach had degraded over the decades. It would have cost between $25 and $40 million to replace.

City officials announced a $50 million restoration in 2006. That plan was scrapped four years later in favor of tearing it down and starting over. The inverted pyramid was demolished in 2015.

Crews from Sonny Glasbrenner Inc. of Clearwater dismantle the inverted-pyramid structure of the St. Petersburg Pier in September 2015. [ SCOTT KEELER | SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

An international design competition was held to find the firm to replace the pier. Michael Maltzan Architecture won with a vision called “The Lens,” but the Los Angeles-based firm’s design was voted down by citizens. After more deliberation, a design called “Pier Park” was selected, though trademark issues led the project to be called the “St. Pete Pier.”

Related: St. Petersburg’s new 26-acre Pier District was not a smooth or quick project

The long-awaited Pier District cost $92 million and features public art by international artists, restaurants and a $1 million playground.

After a postponed opening due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 26-acre waterfront Pier District will welcome visitors beginning at 5 p.m. on July 6.

Unlike pier unveilings of the past, there will be no mass gathering to usher in the next era.

The new St. Petersburg Pier and its $92 million dollar Pier District will open to the public on July 6. This photo was taken on June 28 at the South Yacht Basin near Albert Whited Airport. [ BOYZELL HOSEY | Times ]

Information from “The Making of St. Petersburg” by Will Michaels, stpetersburgpier.com and Tampa Bay Times archives was used in this report.

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