Pier Nostalgia

Written by: Jonathan Kile

Pop quiz: You’ve got a visitor coming in to town for dinner and you want to take them someplace quintessentially “St. Pete”, where they get a broad sense of the city. Tough one, huh? Lots of choices. Maybe you take them to The Mill, where they can dine with a view of the city’s “First Block.” Perhaps you hit Cassis, for the buzz, and the foot traffic and then finish with a little window shopping. Maybe you grab a cocktail at the Canopy and take in the view before hitting Birch and Vine. We are lucky that there are many great options.

But when I got here almost twenty years ago, you took people to the St. Pete Pier. Ye Olde Inverted Pyramid. A midcentury ode to concrete and sharp angles, the late-great pier was a destination that defied gravity, salt water, and if we believe what we’re told, profit. You can say what you want: It was ugly. It was too far to walk on a hot day. The shops were cheesy. It was too “touristy.” But the pier offered, hands down, the best view of the city.

Ugly? The best place to cope with an ugly pier was on it. Sure, it didn’t meet the public’s design sensibilities at the end of the century. If it did, it would have been faux Med Rev stucco, with some Neo Classical columns thrown in to satisfy the senseless architectural mixing that dominated the era. The shops? As I recall, you could buy one of those curly-carved Hawaiian candles, with your name melted in to it. (But why?) And there was a shop selling movie memorabilia. (Again, why?)

Not profitable? Tell that to the Gonzmarts who operated a Columbia Restaurant and the underrated tropical bar, Cha Cha Coconuts. The only thing wrong with Cha Cha Coconuts was the Spring-Break-y name.

I remember when some old college friends were coming to visit in 2002. I was still in my twenties and we did not have the budget or, more significantly, the manners to eat at the Columbia. So, I took them where I took many visitors, to the top floor “Cha Cha’s.” Reasonably priced Spanish food and burgers, drinks, and live music, outside, with an amazing view. What more did we need? The answer was “nothing.”

I’m not afraid to admit that I loved that old pier. Maybe I didn’t love it enough to keep it in business, but I spent a lot of time down there. I remember sitting in the first floor outdoor bar (which had a revolving door of nautical names) watching FSU football take on Miami on a hot October Saturday. There were ships sailing by in the background as fisherman reeled in mackerel and sheepshead. In the waning moments of the game, I boldly (drunkenly) declared, “If FSU makes this kick, I’ll jump into the bay to celebrate.” And I really meant it. Of course, FSU missed the kick and I still have a clean criminal record.

They said the inverted pyramid was about to crumble. Of course, it went over-time and over-budget to tear it down because it just wouldn’t fall.  I’ll accept that it had outlived its usefulness and wasn’t worth another remodel, but I refuse to malign something that was a true asset for several decades. You could feed pelicans, fish in deep water, tour a replica of the famous Bounty (as in “Mutiny on the…), visit an aquarium, have a fine lunch, and rent a bike, all in an afternoon.

I’m looking forward to the new pier. Some people will moan about the cost or the design – which seems to be the main theme of St. Pete’s history of piers. But I look forward to the investment in something that, similar to our great parks, exists to show off this city’s beauty. Because if you don’t like how the pier looks, you can always go stand on it and look towards the bay or the skyline.

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