Sugar Cubes

A sweet deal for the museum, but what's in store for Kiley Gardens?

It was vintage Pam Iorio, a lovefest that marked the end of the odyssey, the home-at-last message that the Tampa Museum of Art will be moving into the buildings known as the "Cubes" next to the building known as "the Beer Can."

Museum leaders and other civic notables gathered with Tampa's mayor last week to laud her decision to buy the Cubes (real name: The Pavilion) from the new owners of the Beer Can (real name: Rivergate Tower) as the new home for the museum.

Since canceling the (overly) expensive, much-talked-about architectural plans for the museum's new building last year, Iorio has turned a debacle into a win.

If you consider this a win.

After all, the Cubes were not universally viewed as ideal for an art museum. All those windows, for instance: Isn't exposure to sunlight dangerous to some artworks? And the plan to lease two floors in the Rivergate Tower to display art begged another question: How do you hang flat paintings on a curved surface?

Museum interim director Ken Rollins answers that the sunny areas will be used to display sculpture and other art that will not be harmed by light, and the museum will drop in two new floors inside the Pavilion that will be traditional display space not affected by sunlight. Straight walls will be built inside one of the Rivergate floors to create traditional gallery space.

Still, given the challenges posed by the site, the fact that so many participants are gushing about it is a testament to the mayor's ability to force a deal.

"We've come a long way, baby!" museum board chairwoman Cornelia Corbett was quoted in the Tampa Tribune.

The only person who takes it in the shorts, it appears, is Dan Kiley. But since he's been dead since 2004, no one with the city figures he'll mind.

Kiley was the most renowned landscape architect of the last half of the 20th century and the designer of the park just north of the Beer Can. His geometrically intricate design for the park — first called NCNB Plaza Park — is known to architects and landscape designers the world over, but is largely unknown here in Tampa Bay.

When opened in 1988, Kiley Gardens — as it is now popularly called — featured reflecting pools fed by canals that ran through the pattern of pavers and grass. Unfortunately, due to some value engineering in the field and the state of technology available in the late 1980s, the park was a headache from day one, leaking into the city-owned parking garage below. Under Mayor Dick Greco, the city replaced the reflecting pools and turned off the water, eliminating an important feature of Kiley's internationally recognized design.

In some ways, Kiley's garden is living on borrowed time. When Greco's administration signed off on the Viñoly design in the late 1990s, the plans called for the park to be destroyed. (One source close to the architecture selection process told me that bidders were informed by city officials that Kiley himself had said Tampa could scrap his park; with Kiley dead, that account can't be confirmed.)

After Viñoly's plans were tossed in 2005, a group of architects, historical preservations, landscape architects and other civic leaders worked to raise awareness of the importance of Kiley Gardens.

Last July, supporters met with Pam Iorio and received an assurance from her that the park would be saved.

Last week's announcement reiterates that promise — with some serious wiggle room.

The $6.4 million the city will spend on repairing and waterproofing the parking garage "includes the removal of the Kiley Gardens and some of the cost to restore the Gardens in a very basic fashion," according to the city's news briefing on the museum deal. "Once the repairs are completed, the City and the Museum will work with those in the community interested in the preservation of the Kiley Gardens to find a way to honor the original intent of the architect while recreating a park that can structurally work in harmony with the parking garage underneath."

The question remains, however, as to just how much of Kiley's vision will be restored. It is clear that the water features are history; on site plans, an addition to the museum sits where the former reflecting pools were located. But how faithful can the rest of the park be without them?

Advocates for Kiley Gardens greeted Iorio's announcement as good news.

"Its not a negative thing," said Anne Vela, one of the founders of the Friends of Kiley Gardens. "This is very positive."

"We are fully in favor of using the park as an adjunct to the museum," said architect and preservationist Roger Grunke, another early supporter of saving the park, "but in order to qualify [for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places], the garden needs to be restored per Dan Kiley's design and not an interpretation of it."

Both Vela and Grunke emphasized the importance of Iorio signing a nomination application for the gardens to be listed on the National Register, saying the paperwork has been on the mayor's desk for half a year and that they had not heard her make a decision on it.

Historic designation would limit the city's options in dealing with Kiley Gardens, but it would also allow the city to get federal money to restore the park. "We could get millions of dollars if we tried," Vela said.

"We have not heard from her directly on this," Grunke said.

So I called the mayor's spokeswoman, Liana Lopez, to find out when the mayor might make a decision on the application.

Lopez called back to say Iorio had already made the decision not to sign the application months ago and "communicated that to the community members who are working on Kiley Gardens."

That's news to the Friends of Kiley Gardens. And not part of the rah-rah of the press conference and the subsequent newspaper coverage.

Political Whore can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] or by telephone at 813-739-4805.