Nearly a century ago, a 214-foot tall tubular structure rose high over Tampa’s Sulphur Springs, looking less like a water tower than something that belongs on a castle.
By the 1950s, the 21-story tower was the funky focal point of the Tower Drive-In movie theater. Decades later came a plan to build a hotel-office project there in the struggling neighborhood, but that fizzled. Still the white beacon stood tall, a landmark to passing motorists on Interstate 275.
In 1990, the Sulphur Springs Water Tower made news as an irresistible lure for two 14-year-old boys who managed to get inside, climb the rickety old spiral staircase to the top and get stuck on the roof. They had to be plucked off by helicopter.
For the first time in nearly 35 years, one of Tampa’s most glimpsed — and perhaps most remarked-upon — structures is getting a scrub-down and a fresh coat of paint. What’s more, its traditionally blank exterior could soon be transformed into a high-up welcome sign for the city.
Spiffing up the structure at Florida Avenue and Bird Street in North Tampa began recently and will take several weeks, depending on the weather. It will cost about $300,000 and require 150 gallons of Benjamin Moore Ultra Spec exterior satin finish white paint followed by an anti-graffiti coating, according to city officials.
“It’s the first time that tower has been pressure-washed and painted since 1989,” said Adriana Colina, the city’s director of logistics and asset management. “We’re excited — long overdue.”
It’s showing definite signs of needing it, let’s just say that,” she said.
Given the city’s current boom, the vision for the tower’s next incarnation initially included talk of painting it with a welcome-to-Tampa sentiment similar to what’s on the yellow-domed water tank across town in West Tampa.
Stay on top of what’s happening in Tampa
Subscribe to our free Tampa Times newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
But then came concerns about whether painting directly on the 96-year-old Sulphur Springs structure might affect its historic status. Instead, the tower likely will greet visitors using lighting or signs projected onto it.
“What the future activation of the tower is going to look like is still being determined, but we do plan to shine a light there beyond just the basic pressure washing and painting,” said Janelle McGregor, the city’s director of community engagement. That could mean a sign saying “Welcome to Tampa” one week and advertising the annual (and upcoming) River Tower Festival the next, she said.
“We’re just trying to kick around some possibilities to bring some life to the tower,” she said. Whatever they decide will have to be in line with “the historical designation criteria as well as costs,” she said.
Big doings are scheduled for the city’s 12.5-acre River Tower Park, the picturesque if underutilized expanse along the Hillsborough River where the tower sits. The grass roots River Tower Festival, which benefits both the tower and the park, happens Nov. 11 with bands, vendors, beer, wine, food trucks and events for kids, said Debi Johnson, president of the nonprofit River Tower Foundation.
The 1927 tower’s makeover “I think will be a nice backdrop for the festival,” said McGregor.