As the AAG meeting was winding down, I snuck out of Boston a night early to fly to Tampa. Two of my good friends from Knoxville were back in the States (he and his Scottish wife live in the UK now; long story) to officially tie the knot. The American half’s folks retired to Western Florida some years ago, and they wanted to give their son a proper party in the US while they had the opportunity. So, a few of us converged on St. Petersburg for a couple of days. Though much of our trip was taken up by the Sunday wedding (my friend Shane, who has appeared on this blog multiple times, did a great job officiating it), we managed to fit in several other activities. We ate lunch at Taco Bus, spent some time at the beach, went to the Dali museum and caught a great Frida Kahlo exhibit, checked out Banana’s Records, and last but certainly not least, tracked down the site of another Ben Irving Postcard.
Ben mailed this one from St. Petersburg on February 10, 1939. He had spent so much time in Florida over that decade, it would be fairly safe to assume that he’d decided by this point to retire down there eventually (as he did). He didn’t indicate whether he stayed in the Suwannee Hotel, pictured there, directly across Mirror Lake from the artist’s vantage point.
Considering how the hotel was a prominent selling point for the city in D. P. Davis-development-era postcards, I had a surprising amount of difficulty finding anything about the building other than cursory information. A few sources indicated that the hotel was closed but the building had been converted into “offices for Pinellas County,” which was not all that helpful in figuring out the coordinates. The postcard also didn’t have the address or phone number anywhere on it. The caption on the back just said it was “a fireproof building with 205 modernly-equipped, well-ventilated, steamheated guest rooms. Located in the center of everything of interest” and implored people to write the Managing Director John N. Brown for rates. At the time, the postmaster in St. Petersburg would know exactly where a landmark like a hotel with over two hundred rooms was, so an address was not really necessary for someone to write them. I only had the browser on my phone available at the time, so advanced newspaper searches were out of the question. Thankfully, the building’s location near Mirror Lake helped me to sort it out using Google Maps, since it’s highly unlikely that the city took such drastic measures during redevelopment that they needed to move a lake.
I sorted through potential locations, looked at buildings in street view, and settled on a location at the corner of 1st Avenue and 5th Street on the southeastern corner of Mirror Lake.
Until I tried to investigate the hotel building, I had completely forgotten that St. Pete and Tampa are in two different counties, which I suppose makes sense if they are separated by a big body of water, but creates an administrative nightmare for getting people and capital between the two cities. In the sports geography case, the Lightning and Buccaneers both play in Hillsborough County (Tampa proper) while the Rays play in Pinellas County (St. Pete). It seems hard enough to get from one city to the other using public transit, so I don’t want to imagine what it was like for the counties to battle over the Tampa Bay sports franchises.
Anyway, back to the vantage point search. In an attempt to recreate the aesthetic of the postcard image, I convinced my companions to visit the site as the sun was setting. We drove over to Mirror Lake right around 7:00 pm, as the sun was setting, and it was finally no longer too hot to comfortably walk around. In fact, the temperate was perfect and the Mirror Lake ring road felt like heaven as the Spanish Moss floated in the breeze. I knew if we let the sun get too low that my phone’s camera (not too advanced to begin with) would have trouble adjusting for the dusk light levels.
We parked the car next to a gorgeous church across the lake from where the Suwannee Hotel’s apparent address was.
I was considering including this as a ‘bonus’ item to my Boston re-photography entry, but once I started writing what you’re about to read below, I decided to give Mirror Lake its own entry.
One thought that occurred to me is how Florida, while already carrying the title of ‘America’s Weirdest State,’ is exceedingly difficult to parse geographically. This may actually have something to do with how weird the state is. Most people know the mantra about how Florida is culturally split between a ‘southern’ North and a ‘northern’ South, but once you actually observe and take stock of the state’s cities, that dichotomy is complicated. For example, three of the biggest cities in the state (two of which are twin cities…kind of) are laid out across the nebulous transition zone. Orlando, St. Petersburg, and Tampa are all crossroads between South and North Florida. Orlando is the home to University of Central Florida (among many other colleges), where Tampa Bay, not much farther South than Orlando, is the home to the University of South Florida. I’ve never heard anybody describe Tampa Bay as “southern Florida,” considering how much territory is located beneath it. Granted, the Everglades eat up a lot of the land west of Miami, but there are still a large handful of prominent cities strewn across the marshy Southwest coast, like Sarasota and Naples. Only four proper cities (Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Daytona, and Jacksonville) fall clearly into those cultural categories, two of each on each side of this highly arbitrary and slowly unraveling (in my mind, at least, as I’m typing this out) division.
I’ve gone on record here claiming that Gainesville is my favorite city in Florida, but it’s by no means a “major” city, considering it owes its existence to a massive land grant and perpetually growing state University. I know popular culture has tried to ensconce Gainesville within the realm of ‘southern’ Northern Florida, between a CMT reality show and generations of ‘southern fried’ punk bands, but it’s still a college town full of Caribbean influence and enough Jewish students to merit knishes on the menu at hole-in-the-wall diners. I’ve only been to Tallahassee twice, and I haven’t seen any knishes for sale anywhere, but the moment I expand this conversation into the panhandle is the moment I expand the geographic discussion by about 4 paragraphs. I don’t want to disparage Pensacola, though, since SEDAAG 2015 was enjoyable, I have some good friends there, and it’s only 45 minutes from Mobile.
Anyway, this is all to say that, yes Florida is weird, but to the cultural geographer, weird is almost always good. As long as I live, seeing Spanish Moss swinging in the breeze will always fill me with joy. It’s so serene, it makes it easy to forget how invasive and harmful the species is. Not that I’m any ecological expert, either.