Longtime Resident Reflects on the ONE and Downtown

Cathryn Sweatt has lived in her house on Sixth Avenue North for over 70 years. She moved into her two-story home with her mother, Thelma Cleo, her father, Pearley, and her brother, Paul Wayne in 1946. Cathryn was born in Inverness, Florida, and then moved with the family to the south side of St. Petersburg in 1943 where she attended Southside Junior High School before finally settling in the Old Northeast three years later.

When the Sweatt family moved into the neighborhood in 1946, the block the house is on didn’t look too much different than it does now. “The apartment building on Sixth Avenue and Second Street wasn’t there, but most of the homes and bungalows were already there,” said Cathryn. She was in tenth grade when the family moved into the neighborhood and she attended St. Petersburg High School from which she graduated.

According to Cathryn, her house was built in 1910 or so but the property tax records have it dated as 1924 “because that’s when they (the City of St. Petersburg) began to keep (property) records.” The back of the house used to be an open porch which her dad later enclosed. Pearley also changed the siding on the house. A wheelchair ramp was built in the front of the house by the wheelchair ramp ministry of Pasadena Community (United Methodist) Church for Cathryn’s mom, Thelma Cleo who passed away in the year 2004 at the age of 102.

Cathryn’s mom was the family cook in the household even until she became a centenarian. Thelma Cleo kept a garden in the backyard and Cathryn kept mostly out of the kitchen. After Thelma Cleo passed away, Cathryn reluctantly acclimated to basic food preparation out of necessity.

Dad Pearley died at the age of 88. Cathryn’s brother, Paul Wayne who was three years older than Cathryn, died at the age of 76 the same year that their mother passed. The couple’s first child died at birth before Paul Wayne and Cathryn were born.

Paul Wayne joined the US Army and went for training in Fort Benning, Georgia in the early 1940s. He was deployed to Austria during World War II “where there was heavy fighting,” said Cathryn. When he returned from the war, Paul Wayne became a carpenter like his father, working for Paisley & Stone at properties in Citrus County. He married and started a family, staying close to home.

In the 1940s and 1950s, Cathryn remembers the green benches downtown and riding street cars. “There were no buses (back then),” said Cathryn. She commented on enjoying the Salvation Army band concerts on Fourth Street and Central Avenue. This was all before the age of television and she did a lot of walking. There were not many cars in those days either.

When Cathryn graduated from St. Petersburg High School, she went to Tomlinson Tech (1950-1951) where she took accounting, English, shorthand, and a banking course. Returning World War II veterans were attending classes there also to become CPAs as she recalls. Her first job was performing commercial bookkeeping in the Trust Dept. of the old First National Building that was on Fourth and Central. “(The building) has been empty for years,” noted Cathryn.

Cathryn’s brother, Paul Wayne, circa 1946

Later on she was transferred to the Central Avenue and Third Street location. The bank saw some transitions from First National to Citibank & Trust to SunTrust. She retired after 40 years, but gets together with her old coworkers at Pete & Shorty’s for lunch on Thursdays whenever possible. There are still 6-8 retirees who meet with her for their weekly nosh.

Back in post-World War II St. Petersburg, movies were the main form of entertainment. Radio was the primary form of in-home entertainment, but audio-only shows, news, and very few stations had limited appeal. With no television and limited public transportation, Cathryn walked to the movies and there were five movie theatres within walking distance of the Old Northeast near downtown. There was the Capitol Theatre (still located on Central Avenue but no longer a movie venue), the Cameo on Second Street North (across from where the Sundial is now), the Roxy (located on Central Avenue and Ninth Street South), The Florida (at Fifth Street and First Avenue South), and La Plaza (at Central Avenue and Sixth Street South). Each theatre showed only one movie at a time rather than the 20-theatre multiplexes in use in today’s movie theatres. Currently, the Muvico complex with its 20 theatres is singularly located in the Sundial retail, restaurant and entertainment center. The next closest movie theatre was constructed a little over a year ago and is seven miles away from downtown St. Petersburg in the Tyrone Mall area.

Cathryn with parents, Pearley and Thelma Cleo

At the age of 87, Cathryn has many vivid memories of the past. Her church life, in particular, has played a significant role. She was raised in the church and says that some of her earliest and fondest memories are of attending church and Sunday school. Cathryn attended Grace Methodist Church that was located at Thirteenth Avenue and Eighth Street South until it closed in late 1962.

In the late 1960s, the Southern Methodists and Northern Methodists reunited more than one hundred years after breaking apart over the issue of slavery and the American Civil War to form the denomination of the United Methodist Church. Cathryn has been a member of United Methodist Women since its inception in 1971. According to their website, United Methodist Women is the largest organization of a denomination of women (currently with 800,000 members) whose focus is to prepare women for leadership, educate and support both women and children, and promote social justice issues.

After Grace Methodist Church closed, Cathryn attended Riviera United Methodist Church which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Currently, Cathryn is a member at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street North. As an adult, Cathryn has devoted much of her free time to singing in the church choir, doing volunteer work with the United Methodist Women, and teaching Sunday school classes across the spectrum from nursery school on up to adult Bible study. After retiring from her career in banking, Cathryn volunteered at different times at Child’s Park United Methodist Church and St. Luke’s United Methodist Church as bookkeeper and secretary for a number of years. Until some very recent health issues, it was not unusual for neighbors to see Cathryn tooling around town on her way to various church meetings, luncheons, and choir practices several days a week. Cathryn is remarkable for a woman of her age and neighbors comment on her exceptional energy and drive. “Work, church and family – that’s my life,” said Cathryn.

One of Cathryn’s sharpest recollections dates back to the early 1960s, a year or so before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. “President Kennedy rode down Fourth Street in a motorcade,” recalled Cathryn. She was working at Citibank at the time. “Everyone (at the bank) went outside to see him.” She remembers the thrill of watching the president’s car pass by where she was standing – close enough and clear enough so that she could recognize him. With a lilt in her voice, Cathryn explained, “It was pretty exciting; I don’t remember any other president doing that (coming to downtown St. Petersburg in a motorcade where the public could see him).”

Cathryn enjoys reminiscing about the old Million Dollar Pier. According to Cathryn, back then residents and tourists could fish from the pier, there were talent shows on Saturdays, there were small shops inside, and a small restaurant existed “where you could beep your (car) horn and they (wait staff) would bring your order out to your car.” Cathryn clearly preferred the Million Dollar Pier over the inverted pyramid that replaced it. “That was before the upside down one got there,” Cathryn said referring to the inverted pyramid pier built in 1973. The inverted pyramid pier was demolished last year in preparation for the new one that will begin construction next year. When asked if she liked the original Million Dollar Pier better, she responded, “I think everybody did.”

Fireworks from the pier for holidays like the Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve have been going on for as long as Cathryn can remember. “I used to be able to see fireworks from my front porch; now I can’t. Taller buildings cut that out (of line of vision).” Progress sometimes has its downside. St. Petersburg has developed a skyline that it didn’t have before, and it does not impress Cathryn. “I could care less,” was Cathryn’s response to the city’s emerging skyline.

Cathryn as a toddler

The biggest changes in both the Old Northeast and the downtown for Cathryn have to do with traffic congestion and inadequate parking. When the Sweatt family first moved into the Old Northeast, the Old Northeast Tavern was an apothecary which was a type of privately-owned drugstore in the days before the large pharmacy chains like CVS or Walgreens. The building changed hands several times, and finally became a restaurant in the last few decades.

Cathryn was aware that the founder of the St. Petersburg Times Evening Independent newspaper and Albert Whitted of Albert Whitted Airport fame both resided a little more than a block or so away from her home in the early days. Her family did not know these local celebrities personally, though. “I guess we didn’t travel in the same circles,” quipped Cathryn.

Although Cathryn never married, her life has been filled with friends, neighbors, and family, as well as church activities and creative pursuits. Admittedly, she “dabbled in oil painting” and took up various musical instruments, including the flute, guitar, and trumpet. In addition to singing in church choirs, she sang with a local opera group in St. Petersburg until it dissolved in the early 1990s.

When asked how she feels about living in the Old Northeast today, Cathryn smiles. “I’ve been fairly happy the whole time I’ve lived in the Old Northeast.” If she were to change one thing about living there today versus in the past, there is only one thing she misses about the neighborhood today. “People used to know more of their neighbors than we do now.”

by Jeannie Carlson