Reviving a St Petersburg Landmark

Reviving a St Petersburg Landmark cover picture shows the historic band in the background and the title is in white letters.

Reviving a St Petersburg Landmark:  The Rebirth of a Historic Downtown St. Petersburg Landmark

Initially, in 2017, the original 1926 portion of the historic Union Trust bank building was preserved and incorporated into the design for Camden Central, a modern apartment complex with retail space along Central Avenue and MLK Jr. Street North. Subsequently, the remainder of the building has laid vacant since 1996 when Union Trust’s successor, NationsBank, now Bank of America, relocated its operations. Presently, entrepreneur Jim Fiore is spearheading an ambitious project to transform the structure into J. Fiore’s Contemporary Steakhouse, a high-end steak and seafood restaurant slated to open in mid-2024.



Reviving a St Petersburg Landmark:  A Major Undertaking

Clearly, renovating the building’s basement, ground floor, and mezzanine has necessitated extensive planning, design, and construction efforts. As Fiore detailed, “We are all-hands-on-deck right now. The 2,000-square-foot extension of the mezzanine is complete and the HVAC, plumbing, and electric is all being installed as we speak.”

Reviving a St Petersburg Landmark:  A Surrealist-Inspired Interior Design

Additionally, the look of the restaurant, conceived by renowned interior designer Angie Wetzel, founder of InterLux Interiors, aims to be spectacular and groundbreaking. As Wetzel explained, Fiore “wanted something spectacular, something new and modern and sexy that’s like nothing that’s been done before in Tampa Bay.” Notably, she drew inspiration from the iconic surrealist art of Salvador Dali, fitting given St. Petersburg’s status as home to the largest collection of Dali’s works outside of Spain. Specifically, the main dining room chandelier seemingly melts like the clocks in Dali’s seminal “Persistence of Memory” painting. Correspondingly, the restrooms reflect an underwater motif with undulating shades of blue.

Reviving a St Petersburg Landmark:  On Track for a Late Summer 2024 Opening

Presently, Fiore and Wetzel concur that the eatery remains on schedule for a late summer 2024 debut. Wetzel confirmed, “I’m very excited to see it come to life. It’s going to be a project that everyone is so proud of. I want people to feel the connection between the city of St. Pete, the Dali Museum, and the restaurant.” Likewise, Fiore has engaged a premier team of restaurant professionals, including seasoned restaurateur and lawyer Adam Itzkowitz as VP of Operations, to actualize his vision.

Reviving a St Petersburg Landmark:  The Storied History of the Union Trust Building

Originally, the Union Trust Bank building dates to 1926, constructed during St. Petersburg’s initial real estate boom by architect M. Leo Elliot in the Beaux Arts style. It promptly became Florida’s largest state-chartered bank. For decades, it facilitated loans, land sales, mortgages, and savings accounts for well-dressed customers. Likewise, executives supervised banking operations from interior offices overlooking the cherished cherry woodwork and ornate décor below.

Afterward, a marble staircase accessed the cavernous basement vault containing almost 20 private rooms for deposit boxes and withdrawals. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, locals jested about taking cover there.

Subsequently, after NationsBank assumed control in 1996 then vacated the site, the structure narrowly escaped demolition. Though the company planned to replace it with parking, the city’s 2004 historic designation saved the building.

Reviving a St Petersburg Landmark:  Failed Redevelopment Attempts

Initially, developer Jimmy Aviram bought the property in 2005, proposing Arts Village, a $200 million complex with 600 condos and arts venues. However, the 2008 recession doomed it along with countless other projects.

Now, Fiore aims to succeed where others have stumbled, creating an exceptional epicurean experience as his first foray into restaurant ownership. Confidently, Fiore declared, “Despite not having owned a restaurant previously, my passion for food and extensive experience visiting upscale establishments have fueled my determination to create a unique and exceptional culinary experience.”

Reviving a St Petersburg Landmark:  The Future of a City Landmark

Presently, Fiore remains on pace to introduce J. Fiore’s Contemporary Steakhouse by mid-2024 within the adapted historic bank building. As Mayor Rick Kriseman said, “This is a great example of honoring our past and pursuing the future. We want to preserve what we can whenever we can.” Undoubtedly, the resurrection of this long-empty downtown landmark will help connect surrounding districts while honoring St. Petersburg’s rich architectural heritage.

Reviving a St Petersburg Landmark:  The Architectural Significance

Clearly, the structure represents a significant period in St. Petersburg’s architectural history. The 1920s boom brought rapid development downtown, and grand edifices like Union Trust embodied the optimism and ambition of the era. Moreover, its Beaux Arts stylings reflect the aesthetics in vogue at the time. From ornate decor to stately proportions, Union Trust conveyed an image of stability and success befitting a financial institution during an economic surge.

Tragically, ensuing decades brought decline as tenants vacated and the site deteriorated. Fortunately, impassioned preservationists realized the cultural value of structures like Union Trust. Their efforts culminated in the 2004 historic designation, affirming the building’s merit. Though vacant for years, its rich architectural legacy persevered.

Now, Fiore’s revival promises to showcase the soaring ceilings, marble surfaces, and elegant details that define Union Trust’s design pedigree. Patrons will dine amid a setting that encapsulates Florida’s early 20th-century dreams of prominence. The restaurant’s imaginative concept will complement, not overwhelm, the potent grandeur of a long-cherished city treasure.

Reviving a St Petersburg Landmark:  The Culinary Vision

Additionally, Fiore aims to match the surroundings with equally outstanding cuisine and service. His team combines decades of fine dining management expertise with a bold vision. Specifically, the steak and seafood focused menu will incorporate seasonal, locally-sourced ingredients wherever possible to capitalize on Florida’s bounty. Expect dishes that simultaneously celebrate culinary traditions while exploring innovative preparations and artful plating.

Likewise, the wine program will offer renowned old world labels alongside new world selections from acclaimed producers worldwide. With over 300 varieties, it will tantalize the most discerning oenophiles. Craft cocktails will reinterpret classics using premium liquors, fresh-squeezed juices, and hand-cut ice.

Notably, the staff training will ensure flawless hospitality worthy of a luxury establishment. Servers and sommeliers will receive extensive guidance to provide guests bespoke guidance and unmatched attention. Clearly, every component intends to surpass expectations for a peerless fine dining experience unlike any other in the region.

Reviving a St Petersburg Landmark:  The Owner’s Proven Track Record

Furthermore, Jim Fiore brings decades of business success to the venture. Though new to restaurants, he has founded multiple profitable companies and developed extensive real estate locally. This project extends his passion for transforming distinctive buildings into vibrant new destinations.

Previously, he purchased, revitalized, and profitably sold Habitat, a mid-century modern office complex. Later, he acquired the historic Manhattan Casino building in St. Petersburg’s Deuces corridor. After a full renovation, the property reopened as residential units, preserving its rich history while spurring area investment.

Likewise, Fiore owns a portfolio of commercial buildings and multifamily housing complexes across Tampa Bay generating steady returns. His acumen spotting potential in overlooked or underutilized properties is a valuable asset for the Union Trust undertaking.

Confidently, Fiore affirms his career-long immersion in design and construction has equipped him to handle the complexities of restoring and reimagining the building. Though adapting it for restaurant use poses novel hurdles, his business instincts and work ethic position him to overcome obstacles.

Reviving a St Petersburg Landmark:  The Timeline for Completion

Presently, Fiore estimates J. Fiore’s Steakhouse remains on schedule for a late summer 2024 unveiling, echoing the projections of design lead Angie Wetzel. Though supply chain disruptions, labor shortages, and pandemic uncertainties could delay many development initiatives, Fiore believes his team can still hit their intensive targets.

“From prior projects, I understand these time horizons often shift,” Fiore acknowledged. “However, I’ve set aggressive goals to hold my team accountable because I hate letting people down. As costs or circumstances change, we’ll adapt while driving hard for our deadlines.”

If opened by September 2024 as planned, Fiore will leverage the autumn tourism surge to introduce J. Fiore’s to seasonal visitors. As weather cools in northern climes, Florida attracts travelers eager to enjoy St. Petersburg’s vibrant downtown and cultural attractions. The splashy launch of a retro-chic steakhouse should entice many to extend their stays.

Ultimately, Fiore admits the timeline depends partially on factors beyond his control. However, his leadership style emphasizes perseverance, calculated risk-taking, and resilience to keep momentum. Early setbacks and stressed budgets never dissuaded him before, much like the 1920s builders who powered through obstacles to erect Union Trust itself.

Now, Fiore channels their indomitable spirit to usher the structure into an exciting new chapter. Come late 2024, the doors should swing wide open to reveal a reimagined local icon.

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About the Author
Rob Johnson
Realtor, St. Petersburg FL