Friday, October 22, 2010

Gondolas in Tarpon Springs, 1927

A while back I inherited this image from a friend.

In a world where everything seems to be going digital, a Xerox copy of an old black and white photo was easily forgotten in my file cabinet for the longest time.
When I rediscovered the thing, I thought about scanning it, but decided instead to just lay it on the floor and shoot it with my camera.
Nobody seems to know who the original photographer was, and chances are, he or she has long since gone to the big "traghetto in the sky". If I could find the person who shot this image, I sure would have some questions to ask.

Before I posted the photo, I did a little research to learn more about the history here.  The photo is indeed historically significant.  North America has seen more than one "Tarpon Inn", but only one of them burned down in 1927, and that's the one in an area north of Tampa, Florida known as Tarpon Springs.  The region is best known for it's "sponge docks", which have not only had a role in the local economy, but also served as a centerpiece for the rich Greek community there and in surrounding communities.

Independent records show that a Tarpon Inn existed there on the Spring Bayou in Pinellas County and on March 4th, 1927, the Associated press reported:
“Tarpon Inn, on of the best known resort hotels on the west coast of Florida, was destroyed by fire today with an estimated loss of $150,000. Although the hotel, containing 105 rooms, was practically filled with guests at the time, there was no loss of life or injuries. The Tarpon Inn was a frame structure six stories high. It was built 15 years ago.”

The image may be monochrome, and far from clear, but that "frame structure" in the background sure looks like it's on fire.
Of course I didn't throw this image up here to talk about a hotel fire eighty-three years ago.  In case you hadn't noticed, there are two gondolas in the foreground.

Looking at the details of the two boats in the picture, we can figure out the answers to many questions, but then new ones arise.
Having looked at a lot of gondolas over the years, I would suspect we are looking at two Venice-built gondolas.  There is always the chance they were really faithful recreations built somewhere else, but with fewer Americans knowing exactly what a gondola looked like back then, it seems unlikely.  In my opinion most American builders wouldn't focus so much on exact recreation in the time these boats would have been built.

How they ended up painted white remains a mystery to me. I have several theories about non-black gondolas outside Venice, but that's another subject for a future blog post.
In this case, the fact that these boats were white probably helps us sort things out visually.

Let's look first at the stern:
My eyes are initially drawn to two things.
The complex curve of the rail, and the presence of what looks like two authentic forcole.
Like the boats themselves, these forks could have been recreations (carved by Venetians living in Florida), but they sure look like the real thing.

Now here's a close-up of the passenger areas of both gondolas:
 These two gondolas appear to each have the standard heart-shaped "main seat".  Additionally we see several other seat backs.  They could be the backs of chairs, or similar double seats like the aforementioned "main seat".  The structure of the gondola in front is fathful enough to Venetian design to have a portela.  Upon closer inspection I also noticed the distinct silhouette of a brass seahorse, or "cavallo" as it is called in Venice.

Finally, looking at the bows of these two gondolas, we see an obvious absence of ferros.
The lack of ferri remains a mystery to me.  
I've seen information and images from the era attesting to the presence of gondolas in the Spring Bayou, but the photo we see here is by far the most detailed piece of evidence I've encountered so far that gondolas occupied the waters near Florida's west coast north of Tampa.
How Venetian gondolas ended up in an area so known for it's Greek population makes me wonder.  Tarpon Springs actually has the highest percentage of Greek-Americans of any U.S. city today.  I can't help but wonder though, about whether a few transplanted Venetians found the area appealing enough to call it home back in the 20's. 
After all, according to some sources, it's the "Venice of the South!"


Tamás said...

Maybe those gondolas were painted white, with blue stripes for the national flag colors of the greek sponge divers who populated the area?

Gondola Greg said...

I was thinking the same thing.
Those rails certainly COULD be blue, and that would fit with the Greek theme of the area.