Our Piers Through the Years: Celebrating a City Landmark
Piers and St. Petersburg are virtually synonymous. The city was founded by John and Sarah Williams and Peter Demens in 1888. The Williams owned the land and had visions of a great city. Back then, in order to be a great city a railroad was required. Peter Demens, owner of the Orange Belt Railway, agreed to route his fledgling railroad to the new city in exchange for a prime share of the anticipated new downtown real estate. Part of the deal was that he would extend his railroad tracks out over a pier reaching water 12 feet deep to allow cargo exchange between ships and the train. (Demens probably did not know how shallow Tampa Bay was – it took three thousand feet of pier to reach that depth.) Demens’ Pier also included a bathing pavilion to attract tourists, and fishing was advertised.
From the very beginning, the piers were constructed with both tourism and commercial exchange in mind. Over time, the piers simply became tourist attractions and amenities for residents. Shipping activities were relocated to Bayboro Harbor, adjacent to the current site of the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg Campus. The Railroad Pier was located just south of today’s new St. Pete Pier. That area today is one of our signature downtown waterfront parks, Demens Landing.
The Railroad Pier and the Orange Belt Railway were eventually acquired by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant. Plant also had his own shipping interests, and those that were not a part of his system paid a special fee to use the pier. Some thought this wrong, including boatbuilder D. F. S. Brantley. In 1896, Brantley built another pier named after himself to compete. The Brantley Pier was 1,500 feet long, and a horse-drawn flat car was used to shuttle goods and passengers from the water’s edge to and from moored ships at the pier’s head. It also boasted a 34-room bathing pavilion, which proved highly popular. The Brantley Pier began the tradition of the downtown 2nd Avenue Northeast piers.
In 1906, the Brantley Pier was replaced by the Electric Pier. This pier was developed by Frank Davis who owned the St. Petersburg Electric Light & Power Company and the St. Petersburg & Gulf Electric Railway, a streetcar utility. Davis used his ready access to electric power to line the pier with hundreds of electric lights. He also extended his streetcar operation all the way down the pier bridge, which stretched 3,000 feet into Tampa Bay. In the years before World War I, the Electric Pier became a major tourist attraction and a symbol of the new city of St. Petersburg.
The Electric Pier was succeeded in 1913 by the Municipal Recreation Pier. This was the first pier to accommodate automobiles. Various amenities were located along the pier approach, including an indoor swimming pool, called the Spa, and the adjacent Spa Beach, an aquarium, history museum, and dance hall and banquet facility. Additional public facilities added through the years included a sandwich shop and tennis courts. Of note, a hangar was built in 1914 for the World’s First Airline.
The location of a hangar on the pier approach at first may seem curious. However, the airline used “airboats” or what are now called seaplanes. On New Year’s Day, 1914, pioneer pilot Tony Jannus flew the first flight of the world’s first airline from the Central Yacht Basin by the pier across the bay to Tampa and back. Later, additional hangars were constructed for other seaplanes. (The new Pier includes a full-size sculpture of the first airliner, the Benoist Airboat, located west of Doc Ford’s restaurant.) The Great Hurricane of 1921 damaged the wooden Municipal Pier. While it was repaired, it was eventually replaced by the Million Dollar Pier.
During the era of segregation, African Americans were not welcome at the piers. They were restricted from use of Spa Beach, and a modest, ill-kept beach was designated for their use at Demens Landing. Today’s Pier pays homage to the hard-won civil rights of African Americans with the Bending Arc floating net sculpture. The artist, Janet Echelman, titled the sculpture drawing upon Martin Luther King’s words, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Opened in 1926, the Million Dollar Pier with its Casino building at the east end was also a major tourist attraction for the city and a popular gathering space for residents. The pier extended 1,452 feet into the bay including the pier head, and accommodated a 100-foot-wide, two-lane bridge and a streetcar line that delivered passengers right into the Casino. The Casino included an observation deck, bait houses, and the WSUN radio station. The pier was called the “Million Dollar Pier” because that is almost exactly what it cost to build – $998, 729.18 to be exact.
Despite the name, no gambling was allowed at the Casino, which served instead as a large gathering and entertainment area. Designed in the most popular architectural style in St. Petersburg in the 1920s, the Million Dollar Pier incorporated Spanish, Italian, and Moorish elements, rounding out the city’s Mediterranean Revival style heritage. A solarium for nude sunbathing was constructed on the pier approach in 1930, and in 1954 a Senior Citizens Center was established with the help of Evelyn Rittenhouse and Doc Webb of the celebrated “World’s Most Unusual Drug Store.” (Rittenhouse was also a founder of the world-famous Kids and Kubs Senior Softball League, which still plays at Northshore Park.) The Million Dollar Pier was demolished in 1967 due to deterioration and a desire on the part of some city leaders to see a modern replacement.
The Inverted Pyramid, with its radical, forward-thinking structure, was built on top of the 1926 pier head. It was designed by noted architect William Harvard, Sr. Use of an Inverted Pyramid shape at the pier head maximized building square footage as one ascended up its five stories and maximized the bay view from the shoreline. Completed and opened to the public in 1973, the iconic design continued the tradition of an over-water public gathering place and tourist attraction in downtown St. Petersburg for four decades. Associated with the Inverted Pyramid Pier was the tall ship HMS Bounty, which wintered for many years in St. Pete until it sank during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
The new St. Pete Pier succeeded the Inverted Pyramid Pier opening in 2020. Its history is now in your hands.
Will Michaels is a St. Pete historian and was a member of the 2010 Pier Task Force and the subsequent Pier Alliance which developed options for renovating or replacing the Inverted Pyramid. He is also the Chair of the Pier and Parks Committee for the Council of Neighborhood Associations. Find more about Pier history in his book The Making of St. Petersburg Contact him at email@example.com.