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St. Petersburg piers evoke memories of family times, a past era and change

The 1926 Million Dollar Pier, a Mediterranean-revival structure, was followed by the audacious inverted-pyramid Pier decades later.
St. Petersburg's inverted-pyramid Pier, which opened in 1973.
St. Petersburg's inverted-pyramid Pier, which opened in 1973.
Published Jul. 1, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — It’s been the city’s town square, a place to see and be seen, to eat, dance, fish and show off to out-of-town guests. For more than a century, the St. Petersburg Pier has been that and more.

Former City Council member Virginia Littrell’s ties to the Pier start with her grandfather, Robert Carroll Purvis. He sat on the council that commissioned the 1926 Million Dollar Pier. Her grandmother proudly called it “Bob’s Pier.”

It was where Littrell’s father worked as a teenager. As a young man, he and his buddies drove one of the family’s Littrell Lumber Co. trucks to the end of the Pier as a hurricane approached to see whether the wind would push it back toward the mainland. Family lore has it that his father was not amused.

The Million Dollar Pier was demolished in 1967.
The Million Dollar Pier was demolished in 1967.

“This was my family’s Pier,” said Littrell, 69, recalling her outings with her grandmother, Virginia Frances Purvis Wendel.

Littrell was on the City Council, serving from 2001 to 2006, when it learned that the Million Dollar Pier’s replacement — the inverted-pyramid Pier — needed extensive repairs. The approach and base, which dated back to the 1926 Pier, were corroded and cracked. Years of studies, discussions and controversy about the fate of the inverted pyramid followed, leading eventually to the 26-acre Pier District that makes its debut on Monday.

Littrell can’t wait to see it.

Related: REQUIEM FOR AN ICON
Virginia Littrell’s grandfather, Robert Carroll Purvis, far right, in the back row, with fellow St. Petersburg City Council members.
Virginia Littrell’s grandfather, Robert Carroll Purvis, far right, in the back row, with fellow St. Petersburg City Council members. [ Virginia Littrell ]

But it is the Million Dollar Pier and her visits there with her grandmother that continue to hold special memories.

“We would go there, and we’d feed the pelicans and we would talk about the things that grandmothers and granddaughters talk about,” she said.

A marker that names St. Petersburg's former piers on June 25 at the Pier District.  The Pier will open on July 6. Visitors can expect to dine, shop and fish at the Pier head. The new Pier also features a $1 million playground, a splash pad, marketplace and center to teach visitors about Tampa Bay's ecosystem.
A marker that names St. Petersburg's former piers on June 25 at the Pier District. The Pier will open on July 6. Visitors can expect to dine, shop and fish at the Pier head. The new Pier also features a $1 million playground, a splash pad, marketplace and center to teach visitors about Tampa Bay's ecosystem. [ SCOTT KEELER | Times ]

“As a child, I also recall at Christmastime, there were trees that lined the approach to the Pier, and different businesses would take a tree and decorate it. My grandmother and I had a date, and we’d drive around and look at the Pier, and that was always a wonderful Christmas memory for me. I was less than 11 or 12 years old.”

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Former St. Petersburg City Council member Virginia Littrell
Former St. Petersburg City Council member Virginia Littrell [ Virginia Littrell ]

The vendors on the Pier sold saltwater taffy and “little, bitty turtles with ‘Florida’ painted across the back,” she remembered, adding that during high school, her father worked at the Pier’s drive-up restaurant.

“People would pull in there and order their hamburgers and French fries and milk shakes,” said William MacDonald, 86, whose sister worked there. “They had the trays that hooked on the side of the car.”

William MacDonald Jr.
William MacDonald Jr. [ William MacDonald Jr. ]

MacDonald said that his father, William MacDonald Sr., a former sailor and ironworker, also worked at the Million Dollar Pier. His father, who became known as “Pier Mac,” was hired as a security officer in 1933.

“They were looking for somebody who could handle the night duty there all by himself, with all of the people going fishing at night,” said MacDonald, a retired teacher who lives in Durant.

William MacDonald Sr.
William MacDonald Sr. [ William MacDonald Jr. ]

“In addition to doing his regular duty, every once in a while, some guy would get drunk and fall in. He became a Pier rescue guy, as well as security,” said MacDonald. “Once in a while, when I was about 8 or 9, he let me go to work with him and spend the night down there, and I got to visit with the fishermen. There was also a big bait house outside of the Pier he had to protect.”

Related: Piers through the years in St. Petersburg

It’s not uncommon to hear fond recollections of the Million Dollar Pier, but in a time of segregation, not everyone was welcome.

“Black folks didn’t go to the Million Dollar Pier,” recalled Watson Haynes, president and CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League. “It was a vestige of racism. It’s one of those things we weren’t allowed to do, and we knew it.”

Allene Gammage-Ahmed also grew up in St. Petersburg and remembers the Pier being off-limits.

“We could look over at the Million Dollar Pier from the South Mole (now Demens Landing) and just oooh and ahhh, and we wanted to know what it was like,” she said. “As a child, we would let our imaginations run wild.”

Allene Gammage-Ahmed
Allene Gammage-Ahmed [ Allene Gammage-Ahmed ]

But Gammage-Ahmed, 70, was a regular at the inverted-pyramid Pier that opened in 1973. She was hired by the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce and sometimes worked at its information booth at the new Pier. Residents, as well as tourists from around the world, flocked to the Pier, she said.

“They thought it was one of the best things in the city of St. Petersburg to go to. When they wanted something to do, they would head out to the Pier,” she said.

Related: Hundreds gather to reminisce at St. Pete's farewell party for the Pier

Haynes, 67, also has pleasant memories of the earlier Pier.

“I used to frequent the Columbia Restaurant. I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed the view,” he said. “I enjoyed taking my kids for ice cream and guests to buy souvenirs. They would enjoy going down there, because of the different businesses that were down there.”

Watson Haynes, president and CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League.
Watson Haynes, president and CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

The five-story building was designed by the late William B. Harvard Sr., an award-winning local architect.

“I remember it being the brand new inverted pyramid,” said State Sen. Darryl Rouson, D-St. Petersburg. “I helped clean out the stairwells. I swept them in preparation for the grand opening.”

State Sen. Darryl Rouson on the Florida Senate floor on the 60th day of the 2020 session in Tallahassee.
State Sen. Darryl Rouson on the Florida Senate floor on the 60th day of the 2020 session in Tallahassee. [ SCOTT KEELER | TAMPA BAY TIMES ]

Back then, Rouson was a senior at Bishop Barry High School, which merged with Notre Dame Academy to become St. Petersburg Catholic High School.

“There was an ice cream shop on the very top floor, and I dipped ice cream,” he said. “It was an exciting place to work, and it was full of residents, as well as tourists, so it made for interesting conversation. There was a lot of fishing going on around the Pier, and I remember we would walk out when we were getting off to see what people had caught.”

In 2006, city officials announced plans for a $50 million restoration of the inverted pyramid, but four years later, the council voted to demolish it and begin anew.