A relic of St. Petersburg's evolutionary period
The late 19th-century “Gilded Age” socialites of the northeast sought a subtropical retreat for the harsh winter months. The Tampa Bay Hotel, built in 1891, and the Don CeSar, built in 1928, are excellent examples of the grand establishments attracting yankee “snowbirds” in the early 20thcentury. Tourism was hugely successful as a direct result of the men financing the tourism. Industry tycoons, such as Henry Plant and Henry Flagler, built vast resort complexes as a reciprocating variable for their businesses in the state of Florida. One of Henry Plant’s railroad lines terminated at his Tampa Bay Hotel. Beyond the seasonal tourism of the rich, the businessmen of the Tampa Bay Area sought cyclical entertainment to boost the tourism industry. St. Petersburg and Tampa hosted the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at a myriad of venues in the late 19th and 20th centuries. In 1914, the St. Louis Browns were invited to hold their spring training in St. Petersburg. Many professional baseball teams followed suit in Tampa, St. Petersburg, or Clearwater. East Tampa’s vibrant black community attracted black musicians, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Muddy Waters, in the 20th century. A cross-bay airboat line in the 1910s and the Gandy Bridge’s construction in 1924 greatly facilitated all this traffic into and between St. Petersburg and Tampa. Despite an economic slump during the Great Depression, the Tampa Bay Area’s explosive growth continued during the 1950s and 1960s. St. Petersburg grew from 40,425 residents in 1930 to 181,298 residents in 1960. The explosive growth enticed investors and developers to modernize the city. The St. Petersburg Museum of Fine Arts and many other cultural attractions saw their origin during this time period. The Bayfront Center complex in St. Petersburg is exemplary of the mid-20th-century development in the city of St. Petersburg. The Bayfront Center complex originally included the Bayfront Center arena and Mahaffey Theater. The Bayfront Arena opened at 400 First Street South on May 1, 1965. It was a massive indoor arena that hosted numberless events throughout the 20th century. Each event was an indicator of St. Petersburg’s cultural and historical development. The Bayfront Arena was a venue for the popular musical acts of each decade in the 20th century, and artists as disparate as Frank Sinatra and the Grateful Dead played there. Other events at the Bayfront Arena included the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, the Tampa Bay Rowdies 1974-1994 season home games, and the World Championship Wrestling’s 1995 “Slamboree.” St. Petersburg and Tampa have a rich history of professional wrestling events. Developers are fickle people. In 2004, the Bayfront Arena was destroyed to make way for the new Salvador Dali Museum. The fifty years of cultural significance did little to impede the city’s hunger for growth and expansion. Mahaffey Theater is all that remains of the original Bayfront Center complex. Mark Mahaffey is a property developer and multi-family housing mogul in the Tampa Bay Area. Chairman of the Board of Trustees of The Museum of Fine Art, Mahaffey is a long-time supporter of the arts in St. Petersburg. In the 1980s, Mahaffey donated $1 million to renovate the Bayfront Center complex’s theater portion. As a result, the theater now bears his name. Mahaffey Theater is a center for the fine arts and other aspects of St. Petersburg high society. In 1996, Al Gore and Jack Kemp participated in a vice-presidential debate at the theater, and the Republican Party hosted a primary debate there in 2007. Mahaffey Theater is the home of the Florida Orchestra. The merging of the Tampa Philharmonic Orchestra and the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra in 1966 created the modern Florida Orchestra. The Florida Orchestra hold yearly orchestra seasons of Masterworks and Pops Classical Music. The development of St. Petersburg reflects many Southern cities following Reconstruction and the economic boom after World War II. A small hamlet became a playground for the rich and a dumping ground for immigrant labor. Modern amenities and the expansion of the middle class in the post-war years allowed thousands of Americans to populate peripheral cities such as Tampa or St. Petersburg. Unsure of how to proceed in the face of huge population increases, businessmen and developers expanded the scale of their cities in a seemingly haphazard manner. Entertainment venues were attractive because of their potential in tourism revenue. Places like the Bayfront Center complex rose and fell at the whims of the local investors.
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