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Activists want to restore Tampa’s Kiley Garden, once a landscape marvel

Years ago, its pools were filled with gravel, the water for the fountains and runnels shut off, and the canal and trees removed.
Aerial drone view of Kiley Garden in downtown Tampa.
Aerial drone view of Kiley Garden in downtown Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Apr. 29
Updated May 3

TAMPA — It wasn’t a hot afternoon. It was in the low 80s with a breeze.

But it felt hotter on the cloudless day in downtown Tampa’s shadeless Kiley Garden.

“Anyone who lives in Tampa knows we need shade,” Jessie Stehlik said as she walked Coco, her American Eskimo dog, through Kiley Garden.

A downtown resident and photographer who uses Kiley Garden for shoots, Stehlik is on a mission to add shade to the 4 1/2-acre checkerboard of grass and concrete located next to the Rivergate Tower at 400 N. Ashley Dr.

She wants about 800 trees. And they should be crepe myrtles, Stehlik said, separated by runnels and fountains. There should be a glass-bottomed canal, too.

It sounds specific, but it’s not original.

That is how Kiley Garden looked when it was hailed as one of the world’s great architectural landscapes after its 1988 creation.

The fountains were shut off around 20 years ago. The trees were taken five years later.

“It is time to bring Kiley Garden back,” Stehlik said.

Activists fought to save the park’s original design as it was being razed. In 2012, another group of activists lobbied to have the city-owned park returned to its original grandeur. Three years later, activists tried again.

Stehlik is confident this effort will be a success.

“Kiley Garden’s time has come,” said Stehlik, who revived the Friends of Kiley Garden volunteer organization that previously lobbied for restoration.

Jessie Stehlik poses for a portrait with her dog Coco at Kiley Garden in downtown Tampa.
Jessie Stehlik poses for a portrait with her dog Coco at Kiley Garden in downtown Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

To help with fundraising, historic preservationist and former Tampa city councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena placed the volunteer group under the umbrella of the Tampa Bay Foundation for Architecture and Design. She sits on the board of the nonprofit, which seeks to inspire the exploration and appreciation of local architecture.

“Downtown is different now than it was five years ago,” Saul-Sena said. “It’s a destination for tourists and residents. We have so many more bodies in downtown. People are ready to appreciate a special garden like Kiley.”

They are not “purists,” Stehlik said.

They’d like 800 trees, but understand it might be less so the space can continue to accommodate events.

They’d like the water features returned, but understand those are likely in the distant future or might not happen at all.

“We need to be practical,” Stehlik said. “For now, let’s focus on trees” and restoring the park’s aging amphitheater.

Tampa City Councilman Bill Carlson is intrigued by the project, but said he needs more information.

“Kiley Garden is an important piece of public art and it provides a much-needed green space in downtown,” he said. “I look forward to seeing the plans for redevelopment and how the community can support it.”

Via email, Mayor Jane Castor’s office said they would comment for this story but then did not after two follow-up emails.

Saul-Sena estimates the trees could cost around $1.5 million. She hopes the city will financially support the effort, but said much of the money might have to be privately fundraised.

To do so, she wants each tree to have a sponsor, though the dollar amount has yet to be determined. Some of that money would go into an endowment to sustain the landscaping.

Stehlik also wants the park to be declared a local and national historic landmark, recognitions that would qualify it for grants.

This undated photograph shows Kiley Garden before the trees were removed in 2006.
This undated photograph shows Kiley Garden before the trees were removed in 2006. [ Courtesy of Harry Wolf ]

One of the men who brought the original park to fruition agrees with the effort to restore Kiley Garden, but wants the group to bring it all back, he said, not just the trees.

“Be pure and be proud,” Harry Wolf told the Tampa Bay Times from Portugal, where he now lives. “Sir Galahad only got to see the Holy Grail because he was pure at heart. You cannot landmark an imitation of history. Landmark the reality of what it was.”

He suggests restoring the park in sections.

“When people see how wonderful it could be,” he said, “they will support it.”

Wolf was commissioned in the 1980s to design the 31-story Rivergate Tower on the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Ashey Drive as the gateway to downtown.

The cylindrical design is distinctive and less intrusive, Wolf said. He added spotlights on the roof to create a lighthouse affect and designed the connecting glass Cube building to mimic Tampa’s urban grid.

He did it all using the Fibonacci series, in which each number in the series is the sum of the previous two — 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, and so on. Those proportions were used to draw up the tower’s radius, floor heights, dimensions and frequency of windows.

Wolf then wanted a park to flow from the structure employing the Fibonacci series. Only architectural landscape artist Dan Kiley, who died in 2004, could have pulled it off, Wolf said.

“He was the dean of American landscape architecture, hands down,” Wolf said. “It could be argued he was the dean of international landscape architecture.”

Seen from above, the park looked like a tapestry. Water flowed into the runnels and fountains from a 400-foot overhead canal, which connected the tower to the Cube.

This undated photograph shows Kiley Garden as it looked before the trees were removed and the water for the fountains and runnels was turned off.
This undated photograph shows Kiley Garden as it looked before the trees were removed and the water for the fountains and runnels was turned off. [ Courtesy of Harry Wolf ]

North Carolina National Bank, which owned the building at the time, funded the $3 million park and gifted it to the city.

Kiley, who designed more than 1,000 landscapes around the world, including the Art Institute of Chicago’s South Garden and the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, called Kiley Garden one of his top four projects.

In 2015, a European architectural journal named the garden one of three premiere landscape designs of the 1980s.

“It was his last great work,” Wolf said. “A lot of people think it was his best.”

But the park’s floor doubles as the roof of a parking garage. Drainage and waterproofing were faulty. Water leaked in, raising fears of a collapse.

“There was a problem with the construction of one of the concrete beams,” Wolf said “This caused a rent in the waterproofing. It was a construction flaw not seen in the city’s supervision of construction.”

And, according to Times archives, rather than using dwarf crepe myrtles as the design called for, the city planted full sized ones that were difficult to maintain.

The pools were filled with gravel, the water for the fountains and runnels shut off, and the canal removed.

The trees were uprooted to fix the roof but never returned.

This undated photograph shows the glass bottomed canal that once ran through Kiley Garden.
This undated photograph shows the glass bottomed canal that once ran through Kiley Garden. [ Courtesy of Harry Wolf ]

“The trees were not causing the leak,” Wolf said. “The trees were not dying, but the city plowed up everything in a bulldozer fashion. In doing so, the city administration took an asset of the people and they destroyed it.”

Saul-Sena said the garage roof can now handle the original design, but, if need be, fundraising could also be used to further secure it.

“I’d love to bring it all back,” Saul-Sena said. “But I am also not going to hold my breath. Let’s start with the trees.”