Coastal retro a-go-go — a visual tour of vintage St. Pete Beach and Pass-a-Grille

St. Pete Beach harbors a wealth of classic mid-century Vacationland architecture.

click to enlarge GOLF GOD: An Easter Island statue greets visitors to the Polynesian Putter, established in 1966. - nicole abbett
nicole abbett
GOLF GOD: An Easter Island statue greets visitors to the Polynesian Putter, established in 1966.

To learn more ...

Visit  stpetepreservation.org.


Those of us who grew up visiting St. Pete Beach since the 1960s remember the quirky attractions that beckoned vacationing families in the 20th Century, such as the Wax Museum that boasted disturbingly lifelike statues of celebrities and the Aquatarium's pre-PETA dolphin shows.

The roadside favorites may be long gone, but we still have the Polynesian Putter and its ominous Easter Island mogul greeting tourists on Gulf Boulevard. The glowing-eyed statue and other fixtures in the area still conjure a bygone time of beach-vacation euphoria with its early- and mid-20th Century architecture and landmarks.

In Pass-a-Grille, such details lend a historic charm to the neighborhood, invoking a time when the invention of air conditioning first led to an influx of seasonal residents. Some of the Bay area's oldest and most pristine residences can be found in Pinellas' southernmost beach hamlet, and you can learn more about them by taking walking tour of homes listed by address in a free brochure at the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum. 


As you travel north to St. Pete Beach proper, a mid-Century flourish begins to take over. Sparkly white, pastel and curious geometric accents reveal a more adventurous and whimsical time in the U.S.

Emily Elwyn, president of St. Petersburg Preservation, says mid-century landmarks like the Bon Aire and the Polynesian Putter — her two personal favorites, she says; she even hosts her kids' birthday parties at the Putter — represent a time when the American Dream was alive in America, prosperity reigned and each household had its own automobile. As a result, road trips were all the rage. Motels started becoming pristine mini vacation havens, equipped with pools, shuffleboard, verdant courtyards and other amenities.The burgeoning space program influenced architecture, and a fetish for geometric patterns emerged, which continued from the early 1960s into the '70s.  

"I love the idea that St. Pete Beach and Treasure Island really attracted this new idea of America going on vacation, the beachside motel," says Elywn. "It was really was unique."

click to enlarge Coastal retro a-go-go — a visual tour of vintage St. Pete Beach and Pass-a-Grille (6) - nicole abbett
nicole abbett
Coastal retro a-go-go — a visual tour of vintage St. Pete Beach and Pass-a-Grille (6)
The front section of the Castle Hotel was built around 1906. Jack W. Girard, pastor of the Pass-a-Grille Church, now the Gulf Beaches Historical Museum, lived there in 1940 and "was the subject of some spicy stories," according to the museum.



Several homes in St. Pete, like the ones above and below were built around the late 1940s/early 1950s with tropical fixtures such as ceramic palm trees and sailboats or screen doors with dolphins.


click to enlarge Coastal retro a-go-go — a visual tour of vintage St. Pete Beach and Pass-a-Grille - nicole abbett
nicole abbett
Coastal retro a-go-go — a visual tour of vintage St. Pete Beach and Pass-a-Grille
The Curotto family has owned and operated the Bon Aire Resort Motel since 1953, and its big mid-century cursive neon sign, thankfully has not been taken down or replaced. Instead the hotel continues to lure tourists with its sleek white exterior and teal awnings, reminiscent of the type of resort slick Casanovas would abscond to with mistresses wearing dark sunglasses and wide straw beach hats. The motel's amenities include a bar and grill, which rumor has it, serves the best rum runners and cheeseburgers, plus two heated pools, shuffleboard and volleyball. The property comprises two-story cinder-block structures with rooms that have balcony views facing courtyards. 


click to enlarge Coastal retro a-go-go — a visual tour of vintage St. Pete Beach and Pass-a-Grille (3) - nicole abbett
nicole abbett
Coastal retro a-go-go — a visual tour of vintage St. Pete Beach and Pass-a-Grille (3)
Gayle's opened in 1954, operated by the Kilpatrick family, and typifies the 1950s roadside diner. The no-nonsense eatery still serves up affordable, hearty fare; especially recommended for breakfast.

click to enlarge Coastal retro a-go-go — a visual tour of vintage St. Pete Beach and Pass-a-Grille (4) - nicole abbett
nicole abbett
Coastal retro a-go-go — a visual tour of vintage St. Pete Beach and Pass-a-Grille (4)
Located in downtown St. Pete Beach on the corner of Corey Avenue and Blind Pass Road, the Wells Fargo Bank building hearkens sleek, geometrically accented bank buildings built by architects like Francis Hoffman and Wenceslaus Sarmiento in the early 1960s. This gem with complementary patterns and an overlapping rectangular roof was built in 1963.



The Grand Plaza Hotel, built in 1974, is the tallest structure on the South Pinellas gulf beaches and invokes a Polynesian-meet-otherworldly vibe that was so prevalent in 1970s utopian architecture.

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