St. Petersburg still retains much of the resort-town flavor its founders so cherished, a community of pelicans, porpoises, endless sunshine and sailboats.
In 1875, General John Williams came down from Detroit and bought 2,500 acres of land on Tampa Bay. He envisioned a grand city with graceful parks and broad streets, the 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. Built one rail at a time, with unpaid laborers and creditors threatening to lynch Demens all the way, the railroad finally chugged to St. Petersburg. Demens named the city after his birthplace, St. Petersburg, Russia. St. Petersburg 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, built along Mirror Lake using Andrew Carnegie funds, opened December 1, 1915 and remains in operation today.
The Roaring Twenties
In the 1920s, the state's first big growth boom brought an invasion of tourists who arrived 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 is evident in several buildings including The Vinoy Hotel, the Jungle Country Club Hotel, the Princess Martha, and the Snell Arcade, and can be seen in the Spanish castles and homes along Coffee Pot Bayou and in the Jungle Prada neighborhood.
Through the 1920s, St. Petersburg continued to have strong tourist years. During the Depression, the real estate boom crashed. St. Petersburg recovered, though, with large Public Works Administration projects in the 1930s, which helped the city begin its economic recovery with $10 million in new investment. St. Petersburg's City Hall was built with New Deal federal funds in 1939.
During the 1940s, the city witnessed large 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 military men stationed here returned to live with their families or visit as tourists.
The 1950s are notable for the advent of air conditioning, which brought a considerable amount of housing for retirees. Central Plaza and Tyrone Gardens Shopping Center began to draw commerce from the downtown core. The population peaked beyond 200,000 and streetcar tracks were removed to make way for a society of automobiles.
New development in the 1960s included the municipal marina, the main library, 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. Today, St. Petersburg continues to lead the region in conserving precious water resources. 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 stately Renaissance Vinoy Resort on the downtown waterfront was restored to its circa-1925 grandeur, reopening in 1992. BayWalk, a dining, retail and entertainment destination brought movie theaters and upscale shopping to downtown in 2000. After extensive renovations, the complex has reopened as the renewed, refreshed SunDial still with movies, upscale dining and retail. Since the late 1990s, the downtown core has transformed into one of Florida’s hottest neighborhoods, where more than 14,000 residents call the downtown core their home – choosing from urban-style lofts and townhomes, to luxury condominiums along Beach Drive. With the continued expansion of USF St. Petersburg, downtown is also home to a growing number of students. More than 10 oceanographic institutes call St. Petersburg’s Bayboro Harbor area their home.
The city’s MLB team shortened their name to the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008. And, in that same season earned their first-ever postseason spot, going on to win the 2008 American League pennant and play in five World Series games, hosting two at the domed indoor stadium, Tropicana Field.
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 of them stayed on 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. Old-timers 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 became known as a resort town, city business leaders didn’t want people of color seen downtown unless they were working in service jobs. They encouraged African Americans to move to 22nd Street S, a spot virtually in the country then. There the busiest, most vibrant black community developed. At its peak about 1960, more than 100 black-owned or -operated businesses, entertainment spots and professional offices served the neighborhood. It became home to the iconic Manhattan Casino, which drew America’s finest African-American musicians, where today, the 22nd Street South corridor is still known as "The Deuces." Jordan Park became a coveted public housing project after it was built in two phases 1939-41. Meanwhile, African American men from all neighborhoods helped build homes and infrastructure during the 1920s real estate boom and the 1950s single-family housing boom.
Integration gradually crept into the city and the 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.
The New Millennium
Since the new millennium, St. Petersburg has emerged as a top destination for the arts – with the dynamic new Dali Museum opening in 2011, the Dale Chihuly world renowned glass collection, and six art districts.
The city’s notable inverted pyramid Pier, which saw its last complete renovation in 1989 and thrived more than 24 more years before the badly deteriorating facility was closed in 2013 and demolished starting in 2015. The city is amid a public process to replace the historic, iconic waterfront landmark.
As St. Petersburg enters its second golden age, and steps boldly into the 21st century, the downtown core continues its revitalization with projects that include retail shops, restaurants, and movie theaters. More than 900 events bring over 10 million people each year to the sunshine city to experience yacht races, triathlons, baseball, basketball, cycling, festivals, cultural exhibits, and music. The city easily attracts tourists with its cultural district that includes seven museums in the downtown district. A state university, 10 marine institutes and more than two dozen galleries, and the All Children's Research Center attest to the city's commitment to education and health care. Historic neighborhoods continue to be restored, as residents invest in their communities with a great source of pride.
Here, young and old, tradition and innovation come together to create a vibrant sense of community.