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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."
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.
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.