Mid-Century Vintage: Sunken Gardens’ New Sign

A colorful road sign for Sunken Gardens decorated with flowers.

When we heard the news that Sunken Gardens’ welcome sign was down and a work crew with a bulldozer was on the move, a lot of people were alarmed that yet another iconic piece of St. Pete history might disappear. With all the development underway, it’s hard to not to overreact. What might be next on the chopping block? First Wilson’s, then El Cap changed hands, and now our favorite historic garden?

But as we now know, there was no need for concern. According to Jennifer Tyson, Sunken Gardens education coordinator, the previous Sunken Gardens welcome sign had some structural damage and was well beyond repair after decades of Florida’s sun and storms. 

It also wasn’t the original, but a sign that had gone up in 2003, when the city was still busy revamping the gardens after purchasing it from the Turner family in 1999. In fact, says Tyson, there have been multiple iterations of the sign over the years, including one that had a toucan instead of flowers, part of a marketing campaign to promote Sunken Garden’s once-popular bird shows. 

The new sign, 30 feet tall with 40-inch letters, meets today’s hurricane wind requirements.  It’s an eye-catching display at night with neon-bright LED lighting, and during the day it looks fabulous with its retro coral pink backdrop and stylized flowers. It’s a design that more closely resembles the original 1960 mid-century modern version, Tyson says. It also helps capture Sunken Gardens’ role as one of the most popular roadside attractions in the Southeast, helping usher in an era of prosperity for St. Pete, and boosting sales for the city’s many “drive-in” motels that populated 4th Street in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

A vintage postcard featuring a 1960s era sign for Sunken Gardens.
A vintage postcard featuring a 1960s-era sign for Sunken Gardens.

For years, most preservation in the city has centered on saving beautiful 1920-era homes and buildings. But more recently, there’s been interest in the mid-century modern style of the ‘50s and ’60s – not just homes, but also the signage. This was the “Atomic Age” and many of the signs featured cool, abstract geometric shapes. Sunken Gardens, with its green Chevron arrow pointing to the flowers, fits right in.  

In 2012, the city code was amended to establish a procedure by which select historic signs could be recognized, with the goal of helping “preserve a sense of place dating to an earlier era.” The city has a fascinating online database showcasing many of these signs. In addition to several versions of Sunken Gardens’ signs, you’ll also find St. Pete landmarks like Biff Burger, Ace Hardware, Derby Lane, Fray’s Donut, West Central Shopping Center, El Cap, and dozens of old motels like the Sandman and Landmark. You can take a look at tinyurl.com/historic-signs.