If I were looking around for a special place to live, on the Hillsborough River, with loads of amenities, I’d choose Temple Terrace. This one-mile square, incorporated town, located just east of the University of South Florida, bears out the adage about the relationship between quality and quantity — smaller can be better.
Let’s start with the community’s origins. One thousand years ago, Tocobaga Indians discovered the abundant fish and wildlife here, followed in 1750 by Spaniards. Around 1912, Mrs. Berthe Palmer, a Chicago socialite and businesswoman, purchased 19,000 acres for shooting and ranching in Hillsborough County. She named her preserve “Riverhills,” and built a hunting lodge, a water supply system, groves and a golf course.
Following her death in 1918, a small group of developers purchased the property and embarked on an ingenious plan to combine country club living and suburban Mediterranean-style homes with income-producing orange groves. This economically advantageous arrangement promised home-buyers that the income stream from the 5,000-acre orange grove profits would cover their mortgages.
During the first few years of this plan, Temple Terrace literally flowered, becoming the first place in the U.S. to grow large quantities of the new Temple orange (a tangerine-orange hybrid named for William Chase Temple, first president of the Florida Citrus Exchange). The young trees smelled like heaven when the orange blossoms bloomed, golfers flocked to the courses, and well-known jazz singers performed at Club Morocco, reputed to be the hottest nightclub on Florida’s west coast. The sales promotions were full of photos of smiling investors living the good life.
Unfortunately, fate conspired to undermine this calculus. The Florida land boom went bust in 1926 and land values plummeted. Then a ferocious hurricane in 1927 decimated the orange production which had seemed so promising. The one-two punch was devastating. All construction stopped and the groves were neglected.
The area limped along until after World War II when returning vets needed housing, and the winding, treed streets attracted young families eager to build ranch homes underwritten with VA mortgages. The prices were competitive with the rest of Tampa Bay, and the double attractions of the Hillsborough River and the golf course were compelling. The number of homes built in Temple Terrace between 1950-1970 went from 433 to 7,347, showing tremendous population growth.
The primary road leading to Temple Terrace in 1950 was a two-lane blacktop named Fowler Avenue, in honor of Maude Fowler, one of the original developers of the area. Then, in 1956, Henderson Air Field, used during WWII for practice bombing, was transformed into the University of South Florida, the first state university built in the 20th century. The influence of this change on the evolution of Temple Terrace was profound.
USF administrators and faculty members wanted to live in this lovely area close to their school. Since USF was originally built as a commuter school, without dorms, its students sought inexpensive apartments close by. Currently, Temple Terrace boasts the highest educational level of any municipality in Florida.
All the growth and activity led to the widening of Fowler Avenue. No one thought of bicyclists or pedestrians when this widening was planned, and the construction also destroyed some of the distinctive entry features of Temple Terrace. Historic homes were lost and the original Country Club was reused for a college. More suburban housing was built until there were almost no vacant parcels left.
Today Temple Terrace has re-envisioned itself with an emphasis on “livability.” There are bicycle paths and walking trails along the river linking amenities such as the public library, the elementary schools and the community gardens.
Protection of the Hillsborough River, which forms the area’s southern boundary, is a priority. Temple Terrace boasts the deepest setbacks from the river, and the strongest regulations protecting homeowners against outsized docks and pollution of the river by toxic chemicals.
The original Women’s Club still offers monthly lunches, and Louise Wilborn, who moved to the area with her husband and young sons in 1956, points proudly to the friendliness of this very stable neighborhood. “My neighbors’ lives and mine are interwoven and make me feel very safe here.”
Architecturally, Temple Terrace is a mix of eras, beginning with the outstanding Mediterranean Revival homes and civic buildings by M. Leo Elliot, who also designed Tampa’s City Hall. Dwight James Baum (architect for Ringling’s magnificent Sarasota residence, Ca’D’Zan) created 35 romantic homes in the 1920s. The ’50s lined the golf course with ranch houses and the 1960s and ’70s added a few cool mid-century modern homes to the mix.
Grant Rimbey, a Temple Terrace Council member and architect, literally wrote the book on his community. He’s labored for a decade to protect the historic homes and spark a thoughtfully designed urban center at the corner of 56th Street and Busch Boulevard.
“We’re in the process of settling a lawsuit and then we can move ahead with a mixture of uses, residential, office and commercial. I can’t wait!”
Temple Terrace’s community spirit is reflected in its ambitious tree-planting program. Residents can select from six different species of trees and have them planted by volunteers in their front yards. The cost of the trees is underwritten by community fundraisers, and all a new tree owner has to do is promise to take care of watering and maintenance.
Although the original plan for Temple Terrace didn’t quite work out as planned, the city is actually a lot more interesting now. Rather than being a “deed-restricted community,” it boasts a diverse population. Rather than being occupied from December until February by retirees, it is a lively, year-round town. Rather than being dependent on “motorcars” for all transportation needs, the rules encourage bicyclists, golf carts, walkers and skaters.
Rimbey summed it up well. “We’re waking up and ready to rock.”