Thursday, July 29, 2021

Secret Tampa Bay Bonus Content: Different by Design

Having lived in Chicago as long as I did, there's just no way not to have developed a keen appreciation for architecture. Consequently I found so many interesting and unusual buildings around Tampa that I wanted to include them all, but there just wasn't enough room. Also, while each of the locations on the list below was more than enough to fill an individual paragraph, turning any one of them into a full chapter would have been a bit of a stretch. So here there are for you, in all their previously unpublished glory.

Different by Design

Are there other noteworthy buildings around Tampa Bay?

It turns out that manmade castles, modern ruins and churches as chicken perches represent but a fraction of Tampa’s weird and wonderful buildings. Here are a few more:

Bungalow Terrace. Hidden behind Hyde Park’s hip boutiques and gastropubs, is a quaint street with 19 historic homes (one of which belonged to novelist Alec Waugh) developed by Alfred Swann and Eugene Holtsinger starting in 1913. These single level houses were modeled after California’s bungalows, due to their craftsmanship, adaptability and minimal cost and maintenance requirements.

Rivergate Tower. To locals, that round tower in the Tampa skyline is known as the Beer Can Building. What makes it unique? Built in 1988 by architect Harry Wolf, if makes use of the Fibonacci sequence (where each number is the sum of the two previous numbers), such that window panes and floor tiles get progressively larger up the building. And now you can go apologize to your middle school math teacher for what you said about never using their lessons in the real world.

Amalie Arena. Everyone knows Amalie Arena is where you go to watch the Tampa Bay Lighting play. What far fewer people know is that it’s also the only place in Tampa where you can actually summon lighting - from the massive Tesla coils suspended over the ice. If you take a tour of the arena, you might just get to press the button and make lightning happen, thus fulfilling your secret, unspoken fantasy of being a modern day Norse deity (you know it’s true). Unpronounceable mythical hammer not included.

Former Publix Grocery Stores. Most folks don’t go out of their way to drop by the local tax collector’s office. But then, most tax collector’s offices aren’t inside of astoundingly art deco buildings with mosaics featuring pirates, like the one in Lakeland.

What about the cone-shaped shacks in various strip malls throughout the area? Those would be Twistee Treat ice cream restaurants and your salvation when temperatures climb above 90 degrees.

Strange Structures
What: More unusual buildings
Where: Multiple locations
Cost: Free
Pro Tip: If you build it they will come.

Monday, July 26, 2021

Space Travel, Scavenger Hunting and Video Gaming

It seems like an odd combination at first glance - like three puzzle pieces from entirely separate sets. But all three have been on my mind of late, and in turning them over endlessly, I've come to realize that they may be far more connected that I had expected.

The first has been on the minds of many lately, as Branson, Bezos and others with the fortunes to spend on such endeavors blast off and leave behind the blue planet we all call home. There have been a lot of mixed feelings about this, some suggesting that the cosmos should not be the exclusive playground of the uber-wealthy, while others applaud their efforts to inch mankind towards the next leg of our collective manifest destiny. I'm pretty sure we're allowed to feel both of those ways at the same time - I do, anyway.

The second one has been considerably less on the front pages of newspapers, yet far more present in my thinking. Over the last several months, I've managed to turn what began as a marketing endeavor into an entire book of its own, "Tampa Bay Scavenger," which is now entering the very last review cycle. It has been significantly more complicated than my first book, "Secret Tampa Bay," but I expect that it will also be more rewarding. It has already given me a new perspective on the place I live, letting me see the Tampa Bay area as a puzzle, gameboard and setting for some RPG campaign. It has reshaped my thinking and I am increasingly excited to provide it to the public.

Lastly, I've been thinking about video games. A bit of that is a natural connection to the scavenger hunt thanks to books like "Ready Player One," which has forever fused those two ideas together. But I also think back to the games that blew my mind, drained days at a time from my life, and opened up new worlds to explore and experience. Wizardry, Metroid, Grand Theft Auto III, Everquest, and many others as well.

All of these things share something in that they are all part of a very particular category of activities or events. I believe that they are all hallmarks and indicators that we are rapidly closing in on the very tail end of terrestrial exploration. 

It's not like this hasn't been coming for some time. Decades, at the very least. Sure, there may still be a few patches of unexplored earth left, and the bottom of the sea remains largely a murky and mysterious world. But the idea of a frontier, a tree line or mountain range or river beyond which lies the unknown, that's something that seems to exist primarily in memory. You could drive from just about any point on just about any continent to any other point by simply entering your current location and destination into the app of your choice. 

I've talked about this a little bit before, through the lens of nostalgia, but I don't think I've shared here my thoughts on what it means for the present and the future. 

Video games - they give us an accessible means of exploring strange and wondrous places, from post apocalyptical landscapes to ancient civilizations, to alternate universes, all which exist to be played. VR and AR further blur the lines between the physical world as it is and the many worlds that we program, design and romp through. Sure, it may be fueled by escapism, but maybe it's something we're escaping to rather than from. Maybe not entirely such a bad thing. Maybe even a way to reconnect with something essential that we're losing or have already lost.

Scavenger hunts, urban exploration, historical tours, abandoned places - I can no longer entirely separate these as they flow together. Without the frontier, without discovery in the traditional sense, we seem to be discovering rediscovery as a pastime. In my own case that's certainly true, and my fascination with ghost towns, forgotten monuments and such seems very much to be part of a larger zeitgeist. Retracing our own historical footprints and coming, sometimes unexpectedly, upon the beauty of what has decayed or what has sprung forth anew from our own recent modern ruins.

Which brings us to space. Perhaps not the final frontier that Gene Roddenberry fans are prone to call it, but certainly one facet or aspect of that next frontier. It becomes ever more imaginable to us all - some scenario that renders earth uninhabitable, but hopefully it will be our burning curiosity rather than our burning cities that ultimately take us from our home planet. Yes, it's most often been the wealth that go first to plant their flags, from the conquistadores funded to by their king to the moguls funded by their business ventures. But it opens a pathway, it shows what is possible and what will almost unquestionably eventually be accessible to the masses. Ocean travel, railroad travel, automobiles, air travel - all were once dreams, then luxuries for enthusiasts, until they become such a common part of our daily lives that we forget entirely the marvels they were in times past.

Can you see it now? The thin translucent filament that binds together these seemingly separate things? The picture that emerges from those three puzzle pieces turns out to be an illustration of that "productive struggle" T.S. Eliot described in "Little Gidding," which few to my knowledge have ever summed up better:

"We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time."

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

St. Petersburg Post Office

 (The piece below was previously published on Atlas Obscura. You can see it here.)

A creative deviation in this post office's design was once a source of controversy.

Florida's love affair with Mediterranean Revival-style architecture is evident in buildings throughout the state. Several can be found in St. Petersburg and include buildings such as the Vinoy Hotel, The Princess Martha Hotel, St. Mary’s Church, and Comfort Station One. This style also extends to a post office located at the corner of 1st Ave North and 4th Street North.

The post office has been a functional landmark in continuous operation since 1916. In 1975, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

A plaque affixed to the post office states: “The Nation’s First Open Air Post Office CorneStone. Laid on October 12, 1916. Completed and Dedicated on September 27, 1917.”

But, according to at least one article in the local Green Bench Monthly, there’s more to the story.

According to the article, in 1907, St. Petersburg Post Master Roy S. Hanna recommended that the facade be left off the post office. It was his belief that this would improve accessibility, and allow residents to get their mail day or night.

The federal postal authorities, however, had a different opinion and refused to pay rent based on the design. Eventually, they relented and resumed rent payments only after a postmasters’ convention held a few months later in St. Petersburg. During the event, government officials approved the design as an appropriate adaptation for the needs of the city.

Eventually outgrowing its original open-air location, the post office briefly moved to the first floor of city hall while Congress approved funds for the full-service post office. For more than a century, it has continued to serve the city with a distinctly Floridian style, complete with several Renaissance elements.

Near the rear of the building is a small postal museum, which includes an old leather mailbag, postcards, and a postal money order purchased by none other than John C. Williams, the founder of St. Petersburg.