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Signs evoke community's past

The original "Welcome to Lutz'' signs were destroyed during the mid-1990s widening of U.S. 41. Civic leaders hope the new signs, erected Friday, will shine forever.

By BILL COATS

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 27, 2001


LUTZ -- Another symbol of Lutz's small-town past has been restored, in 23-carat gold leaf.

Two "Welcome to Lutz" signs were erected Friday on U.S. 41, eliciting horn honks from passing motorists and glee from leaders of the Lutz Civic Association.

"That is absolutely gorgeous," said Auralee Buckingham, a board member of the association.

"Look at the gold, shining in the sunlight," crowed President Denise Layne.

A sign on the south end of Lutz is in the median at the apex of Florida and Nebraska avenues. A sign on the north end is in the U.S. 41 median on the Hillsborough-Pasco county line.

Sharon Espinola, the board member who coordinated the project, suggested that the traditional green color matched the trim of Lutz's depot, a replica built last year of Lutz's original depot.

Both projects are efforts by civic leaders to convey that the 90-year-old community hasn't become another homogenous suburb of Tampa, despite wider boulevards and new subdivisions.

Amid old-world scrollwork, the signs say "Est. 1913."

Lutz actually began blossoming around 1911 as a planned community called "North Tampa." The name changed in January 1913 when the government granted the community a post office, decreeing North Tampa would be confused with Tampa. Instead, the post office was called Lutz, borrowing from Lutz Junction, the name that brothers William and Charles Lutz had given to the rail depot they had established there.

The welcome signs heal a sore wound in Lutz's psyche. Previous welcome signs were torn away in the mid-1990s when the Florida Department of Transportation tripled the width of U.S. 41.

The community's leaders and the DOT had become adversaries over the widening. Lutz conceded the road needed to be doubled to four lanes, but its activists argued that six laneswould only accommodate future hordes of Pasco County commuters passing through. Lutz's protests ultimately won over the Hillsborough County Commission, but not the DOT.

When construction for the widening began, Jan Kostyun noticed a demolished welcome sign as he drove home to Crystal Lakes Manors.

"It was really pretty pitiful," he recalled. "It was just sort of unceremoniously dropped on the side of the road with a lot of rubble."

Kostyun enlisted a neighbor with a van and rescued the broken sign. He hung it in a shed in his back yard, for use when guests are arriving.

As the road work wound down, two DOT concessions came into play. The agency had planned for 1,500 trees and shrubs in the highway's medians, and new Welcome to Lutz signs.

But the signs encountered resistance. DOT's policies allow welcome signs only for incorporated cities, which Lutz isn't.

Kevin Dunn, the DOT's signing engineer, said that barrier fell when research revealed that Lutz's welcome signs were older than the DOT's policy. The signs were grandfathered.

"They would never, ever, ever have done this on their own," said Ron Stoy, a Civic Association board member who pursued the sign project for two frustrating years. "It's the tenacity of the community that made this happen, in my opinion."

George Sturdivant also made it happen. The Lutz builder offered last year to pay for the new signs, a bill that came last week to $3,686.

Like Kostyun, Sturdivant had remembered the destruction of an old sign.

"For some reason, it just struck a chord in me: "Are they going to put up another one?' " he said.

So Sturdivant and the Civic Association traded ideas. They talked about something evocative of Lutz's historic Georgian Revival schoolhouse, with red brick and white wood trim. Or something rustic with stone.

Sorry, said Dunn. The sign must be "frangible," designed to collapse if hit by a wayward vehicle. "Even those light poles out there are considered frangible," he said.

The signs installed Friday look like wood, but only their posts are. The signs are carved by Tampa's Paulette Marie Ricci from a high-density urethane foam panel. But the lettering is a durable 23-carat gold leaf, said her husband, John.

"That gold will stay brilliant for years and years and years," he said.

-- Bill Coats can be reached at (813) 226-3469.

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