Like many other Florida cities, St. Petersburg’s downtown area is experiencing a resurgence that is bringing new businesses and residential projects to the district.
What makes St. Petersburg stand out is that it embraces its history, preserving and maintaining Beaux Arts and Art Deco buildings that stand in the shadow of sleek, glass-fronted new construction. Along the way, St. Petersburg has rediscovered its roots, giving visitors the opportunity to appreciate that everything old can, indeed, be new again as proven by the city’s activities, architecture and attitude.
The jewel in St. Pete’s crown of historic architecture is the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club (vinoyrenaissanceresort.com), easily recognizable by its salmon-colored façade. Boasting Mediterranean Revival architectural elements, the Vinoy opened in 1925 on a site overlooking Tampa Bay. Since then, it has been the playground of the rich and famous, a military training facility and, in the 1970s, a sadly neglected landmark. In 1992, the property underwent a $93 million restoration and is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
With its stunning and newly renovated lounge-like lobby, 361 chic guest rooms, four restaurants, marina, golf course and tennis courts, the Renaissance Vinoy is the perfect home base from which guests can easily visit all of the downtown sites.
On Friday nights, one of St. Pete’s must-do activities is at the St. Petersburg Shuffleboard Club (www.stpeteshuffle.com), located at the community center at Mirror Lake.
No longer burdened with the stigma of being a sport only suitable for bored cruise goers, shuffleboard is now being embraced by young and old alike.
Founded in January of 1924, the club promotes and sponsors tournament-style shuffleboard and gained worldwide fame as "The World's Largest Shuffleboard Club" by virtue of having 110 playing courts (at its maximum) and an annual membership of over 5,000 in its heydays of the 1930s - 1960s. Today, its 65 courts offer year-round play and the ever-popular St. Pete Shuffle, a mixture of play, music and camaraderie, is held every Friday evening from 7 to 11 p.m. (weather permitting).
According to longtime club member Chris Kelly, the somewhat kitschy lure of shuffleboard attracts all sorts of people and has been the foundation of many friendships and love affairs. In fact, two recent newcomers to the group got to talking during play, felt an attraction, started dating and will soon be getting married—using the club’s on-site recreation facilities for their rehearsal dinner, of course.
Central Avenue was, and still is, the hub of downtown St. Petersburg. Located along its length are several testaments to the fact that the new pulse of the city beats in many of its treasured landmarks.
The Garden Restaurant (727-896-3800), located in the old Detroit Hotel at 217 Central Avenue, is the city's oldest restaurant and now offers a Mediterranean-inspired menu. Built in 1890 by John Williams from Detroit, Michigan and Peter Demens, an immigrant from St Petersburg, Russia, the Detroit was St. Pete’s first hotel.
Through the years, the Garden garnered a well-deserved reputation for the quality of its musical line up. Today, it’s best known for its jazz performances. Trombonist Buster Cooper, who has played with Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and Herbie Hancock, appears along with his trio every Friday night.
I managed to snag a stage-side seat. Otherwise, it was standing room only, even on the sidewalk outside. Passersby and Garden guests alike enjoyed the live music, while audience members, such as the amazing ‘spoon man,’ sat on sets.
The State Theatre (www.statetheatreconcerts.com), also located on Central Avenue, is another popular concert venue. Built in 1924, the Beaux Arts-inspired building originally served as the Alexander National Bank. It went on to house a succession of businesses until 1949, when it became the State Theater.
Shopping for Treasures
If your "old and new" passion leans towards books like mine does, don’t miss Haslam’s Book Store (www.haslams.com), also on Central Avenue just 10 blocks from downtown. Dating from 1933, its collection of new and used books now tops 300,000 volumes. According to a renowned psychic, the store is haunted by none other than the late Jack Kerouac. He used to browse the store when he was alive and move his books so that they were more easily found by other shoppers–and appears to still be doing so in the afterlife.
While you’re in St. Pete, take advantage of the many old and new dining venues. Moon Under Water (727-896-6160) is located across from the Bay and the Museum of Fine Arts. The ambience and décor reflect the era of British Colonialism, while the menu includes dishes from the colonies and beyond. Food and fine ales are served both indoors and al fresco, along with one of the best baked bries I’ve had anywhere.
And how exactly do you see all the old and new in St. Petersburg? Leave your high-tech SUV behind and take the St. Petersburg Trolley (www.stpetetrolley.com). It’s a great, inexpensive way to get around the city. For the old-timey price of 50 cents per ride, visitors can hop aboard the Downtown Looper. The Downtown Looper route has 14 stops, one of which is located right outside the Renaissance Vinoy. This route provides a half-hour tour of the city's attractions and landmarks.