by Lindsay Petty
Every day as I approach the office I feel transported to the French Quarter. The wrought iron balconies, old brick facades, ornate window casings hold secrets from a century ago. First Block, as it’s affectionately called, is indeed one of the oldest blocks of our great St. Petersburg, and its charm remains through the decades of growth and change in this city.When people visit our office, they frequently comment on the beautiful exposed brick walls. But what they often miss are the remnants of paint adorning parts of the brick wall along the staircase upon entry. Not much remains of the imagery--the end of a blue arrow is the only element that is recognizable. Upon closer inspection, near the floor at the base of the stairs, usually obscured by an open door, is a painted tag reading Thos. Cusack Co., Chicago.
Asking a few questions to some colleagues, they tell me it’s an old billboard. Well that’s cool. An ad agency with an old billboard on the office wall has a certain synchronicity to it. “Go downstairs to Mastry’s and take a look. They uncovered the rest!” I was told. So I did, and sure enough the majority of their wall below our stairs is a well-preserved billboard for Coca-Cola. Apparently the arrow on our stairs used to direct people where to get their ice cold Coke, but the details of that reprieve from the heat have since worn away. The point of the arrow above our staircase suggests something great around the corner, but the faded artwork leaves a story untold. I had to know more about the billboard on the inside of our building.
I quickly learned that Thomas Cusack, orphaned as a young child, taught himself to paint and began painting billboards as a teenager in 1875 in Chicago. Over the next 50 years he built a commercial empire decorating blank, and often ugly, sides of buildings with beautiful advertisements. According to a 1924 Time article, he had offices in almost one hundred cities, controlled over 40 million square feet of wall surface and over 1.8 million square feet of billboards. He sold the company and while the sale price is unknown, the last known balance sheet showed annual business over $23 million.
Learning about Thomas Cusack is fascinating, but didn’t answer my question about how old the billboard actually is. On to the St. Petersburg Museum of History where I spent an afternoon with Marta in their archives perusing the old City Directories from 1908, 1914 and 1925. We learned that advertising has definitely changed over the last 100 years. I had as much fun looking at the illustrations and copy of 1925 hotel advertisements as I tried to figure out who occupied our building and when it was constructed. (Pretty sure our office was a furnished boarding house called The Portage in 1925.) While I learned that the famous, old Detroit (then a hotel) changed addresses from 200 to 215 at some point in the early part of the century, I wasn’t able to determine when our building was constructed exactly.
A friend connected me with David at USF St. Petersburg’s Nelson Poynter Memorial Library, and I learned that our building is often referred to as the old St. James Hotel. Turns out the building has had many occupants over the decades, but St. Pete’s memory seems to recall the St. James as the primary 20th century resident. David pulled together bits from the archives, revealing old photographs as well as a report filed by St. Pete Preservation with the City Council to preserve First Block, with details about each building around the courtyard, including our “Michigan Building,” claiming it was built in 1909. The same report lists the “Ramsey Addition” next door, to our west, as constructed in 1908. This is an addition to the commonly remembered St. Charles Hotel, just further west, constructed in 1904. By this report, the Coca Cola billboard that adorns Mastry’s wall, trickling into our entryway, will be celebrating its 110th birthday this coming year.
I have an affinity for the past, the history, the feeling an old building houses of encompassing people of the past. It’s a feeling many in our city share as we work to maintain the charm and character of its early days by preserving and maintaining the structures that truly make St. Pete unique. There is something inspiring about coming to work every day and seeing evidence of your industry that dates back over 100 years to remind you of where we’ve come from. I am grateful to architect Edward Tonnelier who designed Michigan Building that he allowed the Ramsey addition’s exterior to become our interior, thus preserving this sneak peek into our city’s history. Had new walls been constructed for our building, that art would be concealed in a dark place and forgotten, maybe never to be discovered again. Makes me wonder what clues we’ll unintentionally leave behind that will peak someone’s curiosity 110 years from now.