Shore Acres, the Shortcut the Never Was, Turns 100
A century ago, St. Petersburg was in the midst of a massive real estate boom. Empty lots changed hands multiple times a day and developers took large groups of visitors on bus tours to inspect the newest neighborhoods. Snell Isle was taking shape, but the area beyond Perry Snell’s development was considered a wild and distant place. The first house in Shore Acres sold in 1923, and on March 4 of this year, residents celebrated their neighborhood’s centennial with the dedication of the new Shore Acres Rec Center followed by a 1920s-themed block party. Attendees clamored for seats on a historic trolley tour, highlighting the lesser-known, but fascinating, history of Shore Acres.
In the early 1900s, the area of today’s Shore Acres was best known for its bodies of water: Smack’s Bayou and Papy’s Bayou (sometimes Pappy’s Bayou). Getting there was an adventure, requiring a journey up a dusty, narrow 4th Street and then a trip east on today’s 62nd Avenue. For many years, the land was in the hands of Hamilton Disston’s Florida Land and Improvement Company, and then his cousin William H. Wright. Then along came Nathaniel Janeway Upham, a well-known real estate man from Duluth whose descendants still call the area home.
While Perry Snell was creating his eponymous development, Upham went to work on a neighborhood he decided to call Shore Acres – possibly named after an estate in Oregon, or possibly after a wildly popular, turn-of-the-century play, according to Gary Grudzinskas, current Shore Acres resident and president of the Council of Neighborhood Associations.
Unfortunately, Upham was a little late to the party, and when the boom came crashing down, so did his fortunes. By the time the boom ended, only a few homes had been built in Shore Acres. “What’s intriguing about Nathaniel’s story is that he had a vision and he planned that vision out. He was smart to use the dredges from the Gandy project in creating neighborhoods here,” said Grudzinskas, who has conducted extensive research on his neighborhood’s history, “But, he never saw it come true. In life you can dream big and do things just right for that dream to come true and then something happens out of your control. It was almost empty until the 1950s.”
Upham died in 1942, but the land stayed in the family, as did his entrepreneurial spirit – passed to his sons, William and Nathaniel G. or “Niel.” They learned from their father’s experience, and the way he persevered during the Great Depression. Under their management Shore Acres took off in the post-World War II boom. This explains the unique character of the neighborhood today: predominantly mid-century, sturdy cinderblock houses with unique 1920s homes mixed in. And of course, there is an increasing amount of new construction in the form of larger homes built high above the flood line. Perhaps if Upham had christened the neighborhood Upham Acres, his name would ring as loudly as St. Pete’s other developers. Alas, today, the name is more familiarly linked to Upham Beach, another area where Nathaniel’s early work stalled, and ultimately flourished under the tenacity of his sons.
Nathaniel Upham was initially drawn to this piece of land because he believed it would be well-trafficked by people to and from Tampa via the Gandy Bridge. A scenic waterfront road was a major goal and big part of his marketing. A wooden bridge connecting Shore Acres with Weedon Island is long gone and the neighborhood isn’t a shortcut or scenic route. The community is unique partially because of its sense of remoteness, or as Grudzinskas put it, “You don’t pass through Shore Acres to go anywhere.”
Fellow resident and Realtor Kevin Batdorf agrees that Shore Acres has a special sense of community. “The centennial event was such a huge success; we plan to continue it as an annual Founders Day event [on the first Saturday in March]. We also had over 1,000 people at the Easter Egg Hunt.” Batdorf is the president of the Shore Acres Civic Association, which not only fosters a sense of community through social events, but also fought to keep the local fire station, advocated for a higher 40th Avenue bridge (also known as the Nathaniel J. Upham Bridge) for boat traffic, and played a significant role in shaping Shore Acres’ new rec center.
Back in the mid 1990s, Batdorf even wrote himself into Shore Acres folklore. In the tradition of creative St. Pete real estate men, Batdorf confessed to being the source of the rumor that Al Capone had a house in Shore Acres. “We were listing this very old house and I tripped over a throw rug in the kitchen. Underneath was a huge trap door, leading to a space big enough to stand in. We decided it had to be an escape hatch or something. It was all a marketing ploy to suggest Al Capone built it. All a lark.” While he’s known to have visited the area, no evidence has been uncovered that Capone ever came to St. Pete. But the rumor has been repeated enough times that the house at 5426 Venetian Blvd. N. is known as the Al Capone House.
The celebration of Shore Acres’ one hundredth birthday culminated at city hall on April 13 with a presentation led by City Councilman Ed Montenari in the presence of Nathaniel Upham’s granddaughter, Mary Ann Will, and great-grandson, Niel Allen. The cayor and council declared the date Shore Acres Day with Montenari, whose parents once lived in the neighborhood, noting, “Until we had this celebration, I had no idea about the history of Shore Acres.”