St. Petersburg still retains much of the resort-town flavor its founders cherished, a community of pelicans, porpoises, endless sunshine and sailboats.
In 1875, General John Williams came from Detroit and bought 2,500 acres of land on Tampa Bay. He envisioned a grand city with beautiful parks and broad streets, a trademark of today's St. Petersburg. The city's first hotel was named after his birthplace, Detroit.
Thirteen years later, Peter Demens, a noble Russian aristocrat, brought the Orange Belt Railway to St. Petersburg. On June 8, 1888, the first train arrived, carrying empty freight cars and one passenger, a shoe salesman from Savannah. Demens named the city after his birthplace, St. Petersburg, Russia.
St. Petersburg, Florida incorporated as a city in June 1903.
The year 1914 brought two firsts to St. Petersburg. The rich history of spring training and Florida's love affair with baseball began that year when the city's former mayor, Al Lang, convinced Branch Rickey to move his St. Louis Browns to the Sunshine City for spring training.
Also that year, Tony Jannus flew his Benoist airplane across Tampa Bay in 23 minutes, skimming across the water at a height of 50 feet. The event is commonly hailed as the birth of commercial aviation.
The city’s first library, a Carnegie-funded library, was built along Mirror Lake and opened December 1, 1915. It remains in operation today.
The Roaring Twenties
In the 1920s, the state's first big growth boom brought new residents and tourists arriving by auto, railroad, and yacht. In 1924, the Gandy Bridge opened - cutting travel time to Tampa by more than half and positioning St. Petersburg to become Pinellas County's largest city.
The boom years in the 1920s brought notable architecture to St. Petersburg. The city's architecture reflected a Mediterranean Revival motif, fostered in large part by Perry Snell, who created a 275-acre subdivision, Snell Isle.
St. Petersburg's Mediterranean Revival makeover remains evident in several buildings including The Vinoy hotel, the Jungle Country Club Hotel (now the Admiral Farragut Academy), the Princess Martha (now a retirement community), and the Snell Arcade, and can be seen in the Spanish castles and homes along Coffee Pot Bayou and in the Jungle Prada neighborhood.
During the Great Depression, the real estate boom crashed. St. Petersburg recovered, though, with the help of large Public Works Administration projects in the 1930. St. Petersburg's City Hall was built with New Deal federal funds in 1939. The building, located at 175 5th Street N, received significant upgrades in 2019-2020 and remains in operation today.
During the 1940s, the city witnessed considerable growth. It was home to the U.S. Coast Guard Station on Bayboro Harbor as a training base for World War II troops. Nightly anti-submarine air patrols were made over the Gulf of Mexico, and the War Department later selected St. Petersburg as a major technical services training center for the Army Air Corps. More than 100,000 trainees filled every hotel in the city, swelling the population and creating a housing shortage as their families looked for a place to live. Post war, many of the servicemen and women stationed here returned to live with their families.
African American Influence
African Americans have been part of the St. Petersburg story since long before the railroad came in 1888. John Donaldson and his wife Anna Germain arrived in 1868 and created a homestead on what became 18th Avenue S and 31st Street S. African American men arrived in numbers in 1888 with the arrival of the Orange Belt Railway. They built the beds and laid the rails. Some went on to live in the village that began to emerge.
The new arrivals created the first of what would become several predominantly black neighborhoods. Peppertown is credited with being the first, near Third and Fourth Avenues S, just east of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (Ninth) Street. Historians say the enclave was named for the abundance and variety of peppers grown in gardens and pots.
Next came Methodist Town (roughly between 9th and 14th Streets N and Burlington Avenue N and Fifth Avenue N) and what was first called Cooper’s Quarters (roughly First to Fifth Avenues S and 9th and 16th Streets S.). Cooper’s Quarters later became known as the Gas Plant neighborhood for the two tall cylinders that held the city’s natural gas supply.
As St. Petersburg established a reputation as a resort town, city business leaders didn’t want ‘people of color’ to be seen downtown unless they were working in service jobs. They encouraged African Americans to move to 22nd Street S, away from the city’s bustling streets. There, the busiest and most vibrant black community developed. Home to the iconic Manhattan Casino, which drew America’s finest African-American musicians, "The Deuces” thrived. At its peak in the 1960s, more than 100 black-owned or operated businesses, entertainment spots and professional offices served the neighborhood.
Integration soon began, and old neighborhoods gradually disappeared. But they – and the surviving landmarks within some of them – have left memories of a closely-knit society whose members respected and looked out for one another.
Building a City
The 1950s are notable for the advent of air conditioning, which spurred housing for retirees. Central Plaza and west St. Pete shopping centers began to draw commerce from the downtown core. The population peaked, and streetcar tracks were removed to make way for a society of automobiles.
Later, new development included the municipal marina, the main library, a waterfront arena known as the Bayfront Center, and the Museum of Fine Arts.
In the 1970s, St. Petersburg looked to the future by developing reclaimed water, recycled wastewater used for irrigation. It developed the largest reclaimed water system in the United States. The 70s also saw the beginning of St. Petersburg's quest for a Major League Baseball franchise and construction of a multi-purpose domed stadium. The pursuit of baseball materialized 20 years later with the arrival of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in 1998 to their permanent home at downtown's Tropicana Field. The Rays went to their first World Series in 2008.
The stately Vinoy on the downtown waterfront was restored to its circa-1925 grandeur, reopening in 1992. BayWalk (now known as Sundial), a dining, retail and entertainment destination, brought movie theaters and upscale shopping to downtown in 2000. With the continued expansion of USF St. Petersburg and the presence of a St. Petersburg College campus, downtown is also home to a growing number of students and the new Innovation District.
A New Millennium
As the 1990s drew to a close and a new millennium began, St. Petersburg began its emergence as a top destination for the arts. A relocated Salvador Dali Museum, Dale Chihuly’s world-renowned glass collection, an annual international mural festival, and several other major museums soon cemented St. Pete’s reputation as a City of the Arts.
The city’s notable ‘Inverted Pyramid’ pier, a successor to the popular Million Dollar Pier, was closed in 2013 to make way for the latest iteration of the St. Pete Pier, a 26-acre dynamic extension of our beloved waterfront park system. The new St. Pete Pier opened in 2020.
In the 2000s, St. Petersburg continues its renaissance, endured a recession, and rebounded to become, as the New York Times proclaimed in 2014, “one of the top places to go” in the world.
Today, St. Petersburg hosts hundreds of events, bringing millions of people to not only our downtown, but to each corner of our city. A clear vision and comprehensive economic development strategy have made our city competitive globally. While St. Pete’s profile has grown, our sense of community and the preservation of all that makes St. Pete unique and special remains resolute.