Tampa’s Rivergate Tower turns 25

It’s a less than happy birthday for the downtown icon, and its architect challenges the city to finish the job.

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click to enlarge THE PLAZA THEN AND NOW: The pools were sacrificed on the altar of valet parking a decade ago. - WOLF ARCHITECTURE
WOLF ARCHITECTURE
THE PLAZA THEN AND NOW: The pools were sacrificed on the altar of valet parking a decade ago.

A rare harmonic convergence of money and taste took place here 25 years ago, giving birth to the most extraordinary building and garden in Tampa Bay: Rivergate Tower. When you enter this space, there’s a rigor to the design and a quality of the materials that’s palpable. It feels grand.

Last week Harry Wolf, the building’s visionary architect, came back to town for a celebration of this stunning iconic structure and challenged our community to restore Dan Kiley’s adjacent garden to its former glory.

Wolf is a formidable man. Handsome, opinionated and rightfully proud of what he created, he spun the tale of the creation of this masterpiece for an audience of architects, community leaders and design aficionados on Thursday night in the soaring space originally used as the main banking floor of NCNB (now Bank of America), which commissioned the building. NCNB’s CEO Hugh McColl, envisioning the finest “Banking Hall” in Florida, paired two powerful and highly independent forces — Henry Faison, a real estate developer, and Harry Wolf, architect extraordinaire — to accomplish the project.

Wolf, in a spot-on imitation of McColl’s North Carolina drawl, quoted the CEO’s message to Faison: “The good news is that you’re going to get to build the best building in Florida. But the bad news is that you’re going to have to work with Harry Wolf!”

The site they selected, the corner of Ashley Street and Kennedy Boulevard, was not for sale. Undeterred, they schmoozed the local power structure and convinced Mayor Bob Martinez to sell the city parking structure and rose garden for this venture.

Wolf considered the site carefully and determined that a round building would best utilize this prime location. At the time, most of the new high-rises in the area were reflective glass rectangles with no relationship to their location.

Wolf anchored his design in the materials and geometry of the locale. The fossil-filled, warmly golden shellstone cladding the first three floors was mined on the Gulf of Mexico shelf. The upper floors were covered in a less expensive French limestone, but the difference is scarcely visible and the franc was weaker than the dollar at the time. Strict geometry, in the form of the “Golden Mean” — a 3:5 relationship — directed the proportions of the buildings, both the Cube and the Cylinder.

Wolf drew and revised and redesigned and reworked, with Miles Davis as his inspiration. Davis’ artistry, says Wolf, was in “what he left out.” The architect aspired to create a building which produced the same effect. After all, Goethe said that music is liquid architecture and architecture is frozen music.

Dan Kiley, the most revered modernist landscape architect, had collaborated with Wolf on some previous projects, but none of this scale and ambition. They shared a vision of the building’s and landscape’s design reflecting the same template but in different materials — the building representing a crisp order and the garden melding the geometry with the playfulness of water and softness of grass.

Kiley selected local trees, tall sabal palms for height and lush, flowering crape myrtles with pink and white blossoms for color and contrast. In creating a Persian garden (a nod to the Moorish accents of Plant Hall on the opposite side of the Hillsborough River), water was a key element. Large shallow reflecting pools mirrored the Cube, a shimmering welcome to the property.

Fountains danced in the garden, adding animation and providing soothing white noise to reinforce the notion of the garden’s meditative, quiet elegance. An intricate pattern of pavers mimicked the building’s golden mean relationships. Water flowed through runnels and above the building’s entry areas. Bliss!

Frank Lloyd Wright is the best-known advocate for design consistency throughout a structure, meaning that the chimney’s design should be reflected in the room proportions, the garden walls and even the salt and pepper shakers. Wolf took this ethic of design-consciousness to heart, so the metal grilles between the two buildings, the elevator doors and all the original office furniture custom-designed by ASD for NCNB and fellow tenants, the Holland & Knight law firm, were created to fit.

The result was dazzling. The building won international kudos and Harry Wolf was lauded for his bold creation by the American Institute of Architects 1993 National Honor Award.

Meanwhile, back in Tampa, things were not so rosy.

The Bank of America unloaded the maintenance of this complex, highly manicured garden onto the City of Tampa’s Parks Department — nice guys, but with mow-and-blow resources. Also, the waterproofing of the city’s first green roof — the garden was planted atop an underground parking garage — had major leaking issues. Wrong construction? Poor materials? Whatever the causes, the park caused headaches for the city and building owners.

The downward spiral of lack of maintenance coupled with less investment in the property was disheartening for all. Mayor Pam Iorio delivered the death blow with the Great Tree Massacre of 2009. Fortunately, the building owners sued the city to prompt repairs to the roof. Architects from RS&H oversaw the roof’s reconstruction; working with Kiley’s original drawings from archives at Harvard University, they numbered each part of the garden’s hardscape and returned it to its original location. Except: No trees. no water. And the reflecting pools had been sacrificed on the altar of valet parking a decade before.

Dark days for great design. The building rotated through several owners until the In-Rel Properties Group purchased it in 2011 for $22 million, significantly less than the original construction price of $150 million. The new owners, justifiably proud of owning a landmark building, have stepped up to the plate and invested over $3 million in maintenance and freshening.

Thanks to In-Rel’s understanding of the greatness of this building, reinvigorating it with zippy new tenants like the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, Tampa Bay WaVE and Kawha Coffee, Rivergate’s future is definitely bright.

Kiley Garden’s future is uncertain. Its present condition as a treeless garden is an oxymoron. As a community we could rally to return it to its former greatness, which will attract savvy visitors from around the world and brand our area as sophisticated and smart.

Or we can leave it as a barren, unloved lawn, to be utilized sporadically for festivals and dormant 350 days a year, a shadow of its former glory.

Tampa architect Mickey Jacob, currently national president of the American Institute of Architects, says he’ll lead the charge for the Garden’s restoration, including the reflecting pools. Dennis Udwin, In-Rel partner, says the company will support the Kiley Garden restoration.

Tampa City Councilmember Mary Mulhern, who joined over 70 citizens attending the birthday celebration, summed up the challenge. “The people assembled here have the ability and resources to restore the garden and make this place whole again.”

Rather than being known as the place where great design is ignored and left to ruin, don’t we want the national spotlight to shine brightly on our success with this restoration? For a mere $1.5 million, Harry estimates that this national treasure can be regained. Let’s invest in this place!

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