By DIVYA KUMAR
Times staff writer
ST. PETERSBURG — A hundred years after an ordinance made them official — and 50 years after they were ordered off the sidewalks — St. Petersburg's green benches hold a complex place in the city's history.
They first appeared in 1908 when Noel Mitchell, a prominent real estate developer and salesman, installed them at the corner of Central Avenue and Fourth Street. Soon, others began mimicking him, installing benches everywhere, orange and purple and green.
But when Al Lang became mayor in 1916, one of his priorities was to make the benches uniform. In 1917, he pushed through an ordinance that all of them were to be green.
"It was a motley collection of benches," said Ray Arsenault, a professor of history and politics at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and author of St. Petersburg and the Florida Dream: 1888-1950. "(Lang) didn't like the proliferation of all these ugly benches."
The benches were installed, often in long rows. At one point, Arsenault estimated, there were as many as 7,000 of them in the city.
Alan Rulifson, 62, the lead floral designer for Green Bench Flowers, remembered them from his childhood.
"You didn't have Internet then," he said. "You were lucky if you could use a phone. It was where you went to socialize.
Dick Holmes, the former mayor of South Pasadena, remembered living in St. Petersburg and working as a milkman during his youth. The benches, he said, brought out the romance of the city. "It just sparked the Walter Mitty in me," he said.
Soon they became part of the city's image, appearing on postcards and tourism brochures. In 1948, when Harry Truman was reelected president, the city gifted him a green bench for the White House.
"It was a symbol of the city's hospitality," Arsenault said.
But over time the benches came to be emblems of the city's aging population, with images of them being used primarily by retirees, some with blood pressure machines.
"When John Kennedy was elected in the 1960s, it was this era of youth and it wasn't cool to be associated with the elderly," Arsenault said. "It began to look like a geriatric city."
In 1967, the city ordered the benches removed.
• • •
Not everyone feels nostalgic about them.
For years through the 1950s, police officers kept black residents off the benches, an action enforced by custom since the city never regulated their use through an ordinance.
"It was clearly known in the black community these benches were for white people," Arsenault said. "For people who can remember, I think it's a real sore point, for sure."
But migration after World War II brought a wave of change, he said, and by the mid-1960s the city thought of itself as progressive.
"St. Pete was so dependent on tourism and its image, they were very sensitive on how tourists and winter visitors would see the city," he said. "So when they did decide it's no longer cool to be blatantly white supremacist and pro-Jim Crow, it switches pretty quickly when they realize it's bad for business."
The issue, Arsenault said, reflected the times.
"The green bench situation is just another element of that," he said. "A city devoted to hospitality and welcoming people … insulted many of its oldest citizens."
• • •
In 1983, Flash Gordon Williamson, then 24, received a call that changed the trajectory of his life.
Five years before, he had moved from Michigan and started working for a company that went under. He later opened a shop selling benches and other woodworking projects.
Now the caller to his shop was asking Williamson if he'd ever heard of the city's famous green benches. He had an original one and gave it to Williamson to make a replica.
Williamson created a template, made seven benches and saved his notes.
Five years later, they came in handy when he met Holmes, who had returned to St. Petersburg, heartbroken not to find the benches of his younger days.
Holmes, who had been elected president of the South Pinellas Senior Citizens Club, wanted to bring the green benches back.
Williamson made five more, and from there began to see an increase in demand: Frog's Pond Restaurant, the St. Petersburg History Museum, Tropicana Field, Busch Gardens, Amalie Arena, The Fountains at Boca Ciega.
Holmes bought 19 for South Pasadena, and got his city to proclaim the first week in October each year as "World Famous Green Benches and Alzheimer's Awareness Week."
While the benches' racial history upsets him — "That stigma, it bothers me," Holmes said — he also sees the benches as symbols of inclusion that spark conversation.
Williamson shifted his business to exclusively making the benches, and in 2009 decided to make them greener, using recycled high-density polyethylene, or recycled milk jugs.
He's made about 1,500 since he started, but lately business hasn't been as good, he said.
In recent years, the nods to the past have been less tangible, more commonly expressed through business names that echo the city's history — Green Bench Brewing, Green Bench Dental and Green Bench Monthly magazine, to name a few.
"St. Petersburg has such a rich, vibrant history," said Rulifson, of Green Bench Flowers.
Williamson said he'd like to see the benches come back as more than a name or symbol.
"The St. Petersburg green bench is a timeless, durable piece of nostalgia that shouldn't go away," he said. "We think that some sort of remembrance to the past is important."
Arsenault agreed. Compared to the public benches seen in city parks with rails down the middle to discourage the homeless from sleeping on them, he said, the old benches sent a different message.
"The contrast is quite striking," he said. "That's the world we live in."