TAMPA, Fla. – The city of Tampa once marked the start of the holiday season by turning on Christmas lights strewn throughout downtown’s Franklin Street.
“It was the center of the Christmas universe,” said Victor DiMaio, who, as a kid, spent winter break with his mother Mercy as she worked at Haber’s Department Store on Franklin Street.
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Back then, Franklin Street was also the center of the “shopping universe,” he said, so merchants decorated storefronts to put customers in the holiday mood.
But then came the malls in the 1970s and 1980s.
Franklin Street stores shuttered.
“It became a ghost town,” DiMaio said. “No more Christmas lights.”
Until last year.
Kim Puleo, who owns the office building at 1205 Franklin St., brought them back.
For the second straight holiday season, Puleo decorated her three-story building with a musical Christmas display, wrapped every tree on her block with lights and hung strands over the street.
She hopes it inspires those on neighboring blocks to do the same in the coming years.
“It would be great if this extended down all of Franklin Street,” said Puleo, who has owned her building for three years. “Let’s make it like it used to be.”
But Puleo did not know how it used to be when she hung lights last year.
“I grew up in North Tampa,” she said. “I didn’t come to downtown much.”
Franklin Street is lively again, a mix of retail and residential spaces, restaurants, bars and offices.
But it was dark last year, Puleo said, when businesses temporarily shuttered due to the pandemic.
“I just wanted to bring some happiness back,” she said. “Christmas lights felt like a good way to do it.”
DiMaio, who leases an office in Puleo’s building, then told her of the history of Franklin Street during the holiday season. Others showed her old photographs from that era.
“I was not versed in that at all,” Puleo said. “But I thought, ‘Let’s make this a thing.’”
News archives report that Franklin Street first became the holiday hub in 1947.
“Brilliant Christmas decorations brighten up Tampa,” reads a Tampa Tribune article from 1950. “The big display is an expanding project which was started by the Merchants Association three years ago. The first year, colored lights were strung across Franklin St. Last year tinsel was added.”
Tinfoil decorations were introduced in 1950, the article says.
It grew from there.
Old photographs show man-made snow, Christmas trees and parades, all on Franklin Street.
“Every building had its own Christmas display,” DiMaio said. “Santa was at Maas Brothers.”
Neighboring streets joined in the festive fun, but Franklin Street remained the hub.
Mayor Dick Greco “officially opened the shopping season” when he “threw the switch” to turn on Franklin Street’s Christmas lights, the Tribune wrote in 1967. Greco then joined Santa for an elephant ride through the street.
Franklin Street continued to headquarter downtown’s holiday happenings through the 1980s and 1990s, but crowds dwindled as stores went out of business.
“Franklin Street has a lot of lunchtime activity, but, other than that, it’s boarded up,” the Tribune wrote in 1988.
“People started doing all their shopping at malls,” DiMaio said. “Families went there to see Santa.”
But Santa was back on Franklin Street on Dec. 13 when Puleo had the lights flipped on.
So was Mayor Jane Castor and members of City Council.
“It felt like old times,” DiMaio said.
Puleo hopes it becomes a tradition.
“I’ve had so many people who live and work in downtown tell me how happy these lights make them,” she said. “So, why wouldn’t we want to do this every year? Why wouldn’t others want to join in?”