Carlton: The mayor, the restaurateur and the giant statue that had to go: A Tampa tale

LUIS SANTANA   |   Times (2017)
Richard Gonzmart put up this 1,800-pound bronze sculpture of a Native American princess outside his Ulele restaurant in December. Tampa says it\u2019s on city property.
LUIS SANTANA | Times (2017) Richard Gonzmart put up this 1,800-pound bronze sculpture of a Native American princess outside his Ulele restaurant in December. Tampa says it\u2019s on city property.
Published September 15 2018

You would have thought the controversy over whether chickens should be left alone to keep boldly roaming the streets of historic Ybor City — and the impressive pro-chicken lobby that showed up to argue on their behalf — would be the quintessential only-in-Tampa story.

But now we have the Battle of the Big Head on the Riverwalk.

Actually, it’s kind of a noble head, as giant head sculptures go. Tampa restaurateur of note Richard Gonzmart — he of Columbia Restaurant fame — put up the 1,800-pound bronze bust of a Native American princess outside his wildly popular Ulele restaurant last December.

She sits on the grass by the Riverwalk that winds along the Hillsborough River into downtown Tampa, so tall my head does not reach her chin.

Nope, the city said.

The pensive Princess Ulele — who does not gaze west at the water or at the crowds strolling past, but south past the interstate toward city hall, perhaps giving it the stinkeye — was put up without permission on public property and must move, the city says.

Gonzmart says he ordered the statue to honor Native Americans and calls it a "wonderful addition to the Riverwalk" that people have photographed thousands of times. His chief marketing officer told the Times that Gonzmart’s company, which leased the building from the city before purchasing it, had understood Ulele would have access to the lawn outside almost to the Riverwalk with few restrictions.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said Gonzmart is free to display all the art he wants as long as its on his own property.

And in fact, Gonzmart has lots of art, including another Princess Ulele sculpture, this a full rendering of her walking in a fountain with flames around her across from the restaurant’s entrance.

There’s also a collection of nostalgic and kitschy 1950s fairy tale statues that were once displayed as an attraction by the city zoo — Fairyland characters from Jack and the Beanstalk to the Three Little Pigs that people seem to find utterly charming or a little creepy, depending. But that’s another Tampa story for another day.

The mayor says the city has been "religious" about not cluttering up the Riverwalk, He says the city is regularly approached by people who want to put everything from banners to hot dog vendors on the iconic waterfront sidewalk, and that the rules have to be the same for everyone.

"Just move it," he says.

And could this be the end of that Buckhorn Black Lager sipped by hipsters at the bar at Ulele?

A little history: Once, this was a sleepy corner of the river in a downtrodden section of Tampa Heights, though you could see all that land and waterfront just north of downtown held a lot of promise. Gonzmart leased the historic Water Works Building and turned it into Ulele. The busy red brick restaurant is tucked next to a flowing natural spring and a sprawling, redeveloped Water Works Park, one of the city’s best and most successful parks. Today the area is alive with restaurants and happenings — with valet parking, even — an undeniable success for Tampa.

The head is scheduled to be moved to a warehouse Tuesday. So it’s over, right?

Remember, this is Tampa. City Council member Yvonne Yolie Capin — an occasional critic of the mayor —says she is looking for a way the statue can stay.

And there’s a Tampa tale for you.

Advertisement