Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The changed face of Central Avenue

Central Avenue. This main city thoroughfare bisects north and south St Petersburg. It begins at the water's edge of Tampa Bay, and ends, ceremoniously, at the entrance to the Treasure Island Causeway. Central Avenue is a chameleon, changing as it zips through several St Petersburg neighborhoods, beginning with Downtown, and winding up in Old Pasadena. Drive down its never changing straightness, and you'll see banks (plenty), churches (many, and of all denominations), fast food, antique shops, vets, family restaurants, tattoo parlors, lawyers, CPAs, doctors, a bus station, a police station, and gas stations (many).

Let's take a quick look, for now, at Central in the immediate Downtown area. It's easy to take for granted the buildings and parking lots that dot the street in the present day: but it is also interesting to discover what used to be in those same spots a few generations ago. It's not the same St. Petersburg, that much is certain - then, or now.

The tour begins at 333 Central. Triple-three will not be found on a map today; it is merely the Municipal Parking Garage; its ugly white stone edifice rising six stories above solid ground. In 1940, however, 333 Central was home to Dent and English Tailors, no doubt proffering handsome and now quite-coveted men's suits. There is an entry in the 1912 St. Petersburg City Directory for Dent & English, listed as "gents furnishings" (sic).

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Moving up a few doors, and on the same side of the street, was Shepard Co. at 353 Central. Also in its place is the same parking garage. Shepard touted themselves (in a 1925 edition of the Times) "Florida's Finest Shoe Store." They offered "ladies' fine domestic and imported bedroom slippers of felt satin...in shades to match your negligee" ! In Shepard's stead in the years to come, were the Johnson-Dehon shoe store (1930s), the Maas Shoe Store (a temporary spot to sell shoes whilst the famous department store underwent construction a few blocks away in 1947), and, eventually in the name of "progress," it was razed to make way for the parking garage (sometime in the early 1970s). With the advent of suburban shopping, folks were less interested in buying shoes at some old-timey independent shop than at the new air-conditioned stores in sprawling places like Tyrone Mall.

Crossing over Fourth Street and continuing on the same street side, is 415 Central. It's been that address at many points in time since at least 1909, when a Dr. Rouse, Physician and Surgeon, conducted his practice there. (Had you needed to telephone him in 1909 about a sick stomach, his exchange was simply '67.') Looking up, most folks nowadays might recognize 415 as the former home of a vintage dime store. The fabulously forties McCrory sign still hangs aloft the address, as tribute to the golden days of green-bench glory when snowbirds and residents rubbed shoulders in the aisles looking for swim suits, camera film, Kleenex and pencils. Four fifteen was, too, a Walgreen (minus the S) at one point in time. Now, it harbors several hip gifts shops and restaurants, whose patrons, mostly a youngish clientele, shop and dine blissfully unaware of the parcel's fabulous past as a storied, classic five and dime.

Strolling westward on Central by a few blocks, we come to a large parking lot on the south side of the street that was the former home of 720, a Western Union office during the 1920s, and later on in the Thirties, the St. Petersburg Gas Appliance Company. The Western Union, when there in 1927, told the Timesthat it was adding more telegraph lines in St Petersburg due to higher demand for sending telegrams. (Doesn't that sound quaint now? Telegrams!) Just a few doors down, and in the same now-parking lot, was 730, home to Lovett's Groceteria (and that makes me chuckle, thinking about Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.) At the height of the Depression, in 1933, weekend specials at Lovett's included two heads of lettuce for 15c; Del Monte coffee, 23c per pound; and cabbage, 3c per pound. Lovett's opened on Central in 1932, and was considered a "novel store," meaning the gimmick was something inherently familiar to us all now: self-service. An interesting fact is that Lovett's was franchised out by Winn and Lovett, better known in the south as Jacksonville-based Winn-Dixie. The store on Central, however, was seen as simply a locally operated extension of the W&L family. I'm unable to find any information as to when the Central Avenue Lovett's was closed down or razed, but apparently there were a few more franchises in St. Pete, including one at 551 Ninth Street N.

Crossing 8th Street but staying on the same side, we come to a quite-unattractive boxy Seventies building, which sits on land previously occupied by 842 Central - which had had a busy life as several businesses from the 1920s through the 1970s when the original building(s) were razed. Among some of the businesses at 842 were Madam Wilma, who offered "character readings;" Campbell Hardware; Harvey's Fix-It; Arthur L .Johns, Menswear; Joe Solomon, Menswear; and Frank Decker, antique dealer. The sporadic nature of the businesses leads me to believe there must have been an arcade at that address, housing all these diverse businesses who lapsed over one another from the Twenties through the Sixties. Under one roof, such as an arcade, these small, locally-owned businesses would have been able to flourish in synch, much like a modern day shopping mall.

Our final stop takes us to 1000 Central, to what is probably the happiest success story of all the addresses we've discussed. You will see an attractive, classic brick and mortar building housing Savannah's Cafe, a fairly recent newcomer to the downtown scene and purveyors of classic yet upscale Southern cuisine. Savannah's is housed in a former Studebaker auto dealership building, and most of the original architectural features have been preserved. Technically, the current address is 1113 Central, but as a former car lot, the property must have encompassed a block or even two. Fortunately, this classic 1920s building stands unhindered by the wrecking ball, and almost as originally intended, being used and enjoyed by St. Pete people almost 100 years later.
(Photo courtesy http://www.studebaker-info.org/)


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