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Sunken Gardens' rebirth to begin

A Master Plan and $2.7-million will bring extensive renovations. The most dramatic at first will be evident.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 15, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- The restoration of Sunken Gardens will take a huge leap forward with an infusion of $2.7-million in federal, state and local money and the approval of a Master Plan by the City Council.

The funding will set in motion extensive renovations on the property, purchased by the city last year for a public park after years of decline as a privately owned, aging tourist attraction. When finished, Sunken Gardens could be the catalystof an economic rebirth along a moribund stretch of Fourth Street N, some city officials say. The new money is only about half of what is ultimately needed to bring back the gardens and an adjacent historic building, planners say. Still, it's a start.

"It lets us address top priorities," said Raul Quintana, manager of capital improvements for the city. "We were going to move forward anyway, to present the Master Plan to City Council and then look for funding. Now we know where the funding is."

In October city officials learned that a bill sponsored by U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young passed the House and Senate and included funding for local projects. Earmarked for Sunken Gardens was $1.2-million. Shortly after that, they learned they were likely to receive a $350,000 state grant for historic restoration at the gardens. With those two windfalls in hand, the City Council voted to supplement the $1.55-million with $1.15-million from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax.

According to the Master Plan, which breaks the restoration into phases, about $1-million will be used to rework paths and improve restroom facilities to bring them into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. A new entrance will be created and down will come the "stone" walls that surround much of the property. Site development -- improved parking, signs, landscaping -- will continue.

The centerpiece of Phase One will be a $1.4-million partial makeover of the 55,000-square-foot building adjacent to the gardens at 1825 Fourth St. N. It will be gutted, then built out for use by tenants. A floor plan shows that about half of the space is expected to be used by Great Explorations -- the Hands On Museum. Other areas are designated as city offices and public meeting rooms. A second, undesignated tenant would occupy about one-fourth of the space.

Rick Mussett, the city's economic development administrator, said the city would like to lease the space to a family-oriented restaurant, but "we're not out there formally beating the bushes yet. The building needs some serious, basic renovations before it's ready for tenants."

The plan calls for reroofing, waterproofing, replacing all windows, doors and skylights, painting and installing a fire sprinkler system, which would prepare it for specific tenant improvements.

The most dramatic initial changes will be on the building's exterior.

For several decades, when Sunken Gardens was privately owned, the space was a gift shop. Before that, it was the local Coca-Cola bottling plant, "modernized" over the years into a bland, windowless facade.

But when it opened in 1927, it was the handsome, open-air Sanitary Public Market, an ambitious experiment as a forerunner to today's supermarkets and built in the Mediterranean-Revival style popular at the time. That, said John Toppe of Harvard Jolly Clees Toppe Architects, the firm coordinating the planning and design of the restoration, is what it will look like again.

"We intend to bring the building back to the 1920s appearance to the greatest extent possible," he said.

The process will begin, said Toppe, with "careful, selective demolition to see what's underneath all the paint and stucco that's been applied over the years. We'll remove some stucco over the old window openings to see what condition they're in. We'll probably replace the windows with new ones having matching architectural character. There will be some open-air arcade again."

He said that they have no record of the first paint colors, but he hopes to find original walls and surviving architectural details beneath the layers.

"It's like a treasure hunt," Toppe said.

The artificial stone wall "is not historic to any part of the building," he said, and will be replaced by a wrought iron fence connected by stucco columns that will allow for "glimpses" into the gardens from the street, "so people will see how beautiful they are."

The reconfigured entrance will lead people directly into the garden, not through the gift shop. An old stone bridge that began at the parking lot and extended into the lower level of the garden will be restored.

"It was closed off for a number of years," said Toppe, "because it was unsafe. We will rebuild it and make it handicap-accessible. It will give you not only a new way to enter the garden but an overview of it. I think it's going to be a major change in how we perceive the gardens. We're very excited about it."

In the timetable for Phase One, planning continues through May 2001, with construction beginning after that into the summer of 2002.

Phase Two, part of the Master Plan without designated funding or a timetable, includes improving the gardens more, renovating the smaller entrance building into a public pavilion, replacing temporary maintenance and animal service areas with permanent buildings, and constructing a conservatory, wildlife aviaries and other garden displays, all for about another $2.7-million.

Mussett said that as ambitious as the project seems, "I believe that in 10 years, this purchase and renovation will be seen as a landmark decision, the hub of a redevelopment of Fourth Street from Fifth Avenue (N) to 30th Avenue. It will be considered a key policy decision to turn things around along that corridor."

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