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Princess Ulele returns, just not quite so close to the Riverwalk

Richard Gonzmart removed the massive statue in 2018 after a dispute with the city. Now it’s coming back

TAMPA — Banished in 2018 in a dispute with the city, the 11-foot tall, 1,800-pound bronze bust of a Native American princess will once again attract Instagrammers and the curious.

But they’ll have to wander off Tampa’s Riverwalk a bit to see her up close.

Richard Gonzmart, owner of the famous Columbia restaurant in Ybor City and the Riverwalk eatery, Ulele, said he wanted to bring back the statue to commemorate Ulele restaurant’s Wednesday reopening.

“I thought it was so right. Just the right moment to bring her back as we fight the virus,” Gonzmart said Monday.

He plans to reinstall the statue nearer to his restaurant on the Sunset Lawn so that diners have a better view of the art piece and memento-seekers will have a perfect sunset photo opportunity.

Princess Ulele’s people had been wiped out by smallpox, he said. So it is fitting that her likeness will be returned to public view to help give hope to residents during the current coronavirus pandemic.

The new location for the statue has its required city permits and is on Gonzmart’s property, a city spokeswoman said. Mayor Jane Castor has been supportive of the princess’ return from storage, where the piece has remained since it was removed in September 2018, Gonzmart said.

Back then, the city said her previous perch just off the Riverwalk was on city property. Gonzmart had placed it there about nine months earlier. He said former Mayor Bob Buckhorn wanted it removed. The city denied this at the time, with officials saying they were just trying to follow codes and keep one of the city’s premier strolling spots free of clutter.

Related: Banished: Ulele headed to a warehouse

The action angered some and even surfaced in a city council meeting. Former city council members Yvonne Yolie Capin and Frank Reddick criticized Buckhorn, saying he was ignoring Native American history and didn’t want to share the spotlight on the Riverwalk — one of the two-term mayor’s biggest priorities during his 2011-2019 term.

Related: Capin on Buckhorn: If it was his bust, he'd light it up

Monday, Gonzmart said he didn’t want to dwell on past political spats. He said he was just glad the statue would be back where children could learn about her history.

The name Ulele also pulls at Gonzmart's emotions.

According to a Pocahontas-like myth, the Tocobaga Indian princess lived in the Tampa Bay area during the 16th century and saved the life of an early Spanish explorer when her father ordered him put to death.

“Lele” is also the name Gonzmart’s daughter Andrea Williams had for his late mother Adela Hernandez Gonzmart. The date of the bust’s installation, Dec. 22, 2017, was the 16th anniversary of his mother’s death.

“My kids called her Lele. She was the most caring, compassionate person,” Gonzmart said.

Another depiction of Ulele by the same artist remains on the property in the outdoor dining area — a seven-foot, 500-pound bronze statue showing the princess walking amid of a ring of flames in a fountain.

Times Staff Writer Paul Guzzo contributed to this report.