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Sulphur Springs community group rallies to ‘Preserve Our Tower’

The 214-foot tall water tower along the Hillsborough River hasn’t been painted in 30 years.
A group of Sulphur Springs residents is working to raise funds to preserve the water tower, which has not been repainted in 30 years.
A group of Sulphur Springs residents is working to raise funds to preserve the water tower, which has not been repainted in 30 years. [ CHRIS ZUPPA | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Oct. 17, 2019

TAMPA — Keith and Vanessa Malson, owners of the Sulphur Springs Sandwich Shop, were tired of the reputation that went with their neighborhood.

“You say, ‘I’m from Sulphur Springs,’ and people furrow their eyebrows or say, ‘Oh gosh, I’m so sorry,” Vanessa said. “It just needs some attention. It just needs some love.”

But they didn’t feel the city was giving it the proper love and attention as they saw adjacent neighborhoods boom with development and revitalization efforts. They decided to take matters into their own hands, starting with fixing up the Sulfur Springs Water Tower.

“We want to get something going that makes people proud of where they live,” Keith Malson said. “We look at it every day, drive by it every day.”

One day, Keith Malson was boating on the Hillsborough River with his friend, Seminole Heights resident Debi Johnson, when the two decided to raise funds to renovate the tower by holding a music festival to bring the community together to do it.

The 214-foot tall water tower was built in 1927 by Grover Poole for developer Joseph Richardson, to pump water to the adjacent hotel property and Sulphur Springs Arcade he had developed into a tourist destination.

In the 1960s, nearby construction of the interstate isolated the area surrounding the tower. The city’s water department took over the water tower in 1971, and the arcade, once a beautiful landmark, was demolished in 1976 to create more parking for the adjacent Tampa Greyhound Track.

The last time the tower was painted was 1989, when Sherwin Williams donated the paint, and the city’s Park and Recreation department took over the site around the park in the early 2000s.

“It hasn’t been painted in 30 years,” Johnson said. “It’s a beautiful piece of architecture and important to the history of this area. We wanted to bring attention to that part of the community about the asset there.”

They created a committee to plan the River Tower Festival, which will take place Nov. 16 from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. and feature 10 bands, seven DJs, fire performers, food trucks and vendors. They plan to light up the boardwalk from the pool to the interstate.

The group contacted Sherwin Williams, who offered 50 percent off the paint this time, and architect Patrick Thorpe, who has been involved with other restoration projects. Though he has yet to inspect the tower closely, he thinks most of the renovation will be cosmetic.

The group estimates they will need to raise $80,000 to $100,000 to repaint the tower, but plan to do it over time.

“We’re not trying to rebuild the tower with one festival,” Malson said. “Right now we’re shooting small: get the crown painted or get a marker.”

So far they’ve raised about $35,000 to put on the festival, Johnson said, including a $9,500 grant from Hillsborough County’s Cultural Assets Commission, which they are eligible to receive again for five years.

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City Councilman Guido Maniscalco, who served on the planning board in his capacity as a community member, said the tower, visible by any who drive on the interstate, is important to the city.

“The interstate came through, the neighborhood changed over time,” he said. “It’s not what it used to be, but in Paris, you have the Eiffel Tower. In New York, you have the Statue of Liberty, but what does Tampa have? Either the minarets (at the University of Tampa) or the Sulphur Springs Tower.”

Thorpe said a renovated tower could see a similar effect as to what a refurbished Armature Works did for the Heights District. He said he sees the potential for several community activities around the tower, including revamping the park from which kayaks could launch and bringing a series similar to Lights on Tampa to create a light show that could be seen from the highway.

“Something similar could easily happen around this water tower because it’s such an iconic structure,” he said. “Imagine the Sulphur Springs Water Tower District or just the Tower District. It would certainly help bring up the rest of the neighborhood with it. It’s really about identity.”

The fact that it’s starting as a community-led initiative, he said, gives residents all the more credibility while they’ve seen the city pour attention into revitalizing neighboring districts.

“It’s always a tricky situation, development patterns and all,” he said. “You can come in and invest a whole lot of money but that doesn’t mean that the people are going to take care of it once it’s done.”

Maniscalco said the fact that the initiative is community-led makes it more special. In the 1970s, he said, Tampa Theatre was almost demolished before a community group stepped in.

“The city can always come in and say we’ll fix it, we’ll paint it and leave it alone for awhile,” he said. “When you put your sweat and equity into something, it makes it something more special to the community.”

Dennis Fernandez, the city of Tampa's architectural review and historic preservation officer, said his office would welcome partnering with the group and said the vision of the developer who built the gothic structure should be honored.

“I think it somewhat serves as a welcoming gate to our city,” he said. “It’s somewhat reminiscent when people were traveling here as a vacation destination in the early 1920s. It kind of announces the city. It has a character maybe more than people might presume it does.”