Why I Love the Beer Can Building

The “beer can building,” far left, beckons visitors like a lighthouse.

By David R. Wheeler, Editor

As a kid, I was fascinated by skyscrapers. Maybe that’s because I was always surrounded by them.

In my hometown.

Ashland, Kentucky.

Population: 27,000.

Wait, that’s not right. I was surrounded by a steel mill, an oil refinery, and cow pastures. No skyscrapers. But I was obsessed with them. I daydreamed about living in a big city. What would it be like to live in such a place?

I read books about skyscrapers. In third grade, one book told me, in a very condescending way, that skyscrapers were called such because they appeared to “scrape the sky.” Yeah, no joke. Tell me something I don’t know.

A little later, I read a book saying the Sears Tower was the world’s tallest building. Gotcha. Chicago has the record.

But then I read a book saying the World Trade Center was the world’s tallest building. I was confused. Which was it? This experience was my first realization that the record changes every few years, and I needed to check the copyright date of the book I’m reading.

One time, at my grandmother’s house, I took a large section of blank newsprint — not sure where it came from — and drew a skyline on it. Ashland’s skyline. My mom asked what I was doing and I told her, pointing (almost tearfully) to Ashland’s tallest building — with 12 floors.

In seventh grade, Dad let me start playing with the video camera, and so my after-school activity became an imaginary television channel, with content provided by yours truly, with appearances by any friends and family members I could rope in to helping me.

What was it called? You guessed it. The Skyline Channel.

In middle school, we took a trip to New York City, and I got to see the buildings I’d read so much about. Over the decades, I’ve visited a lot of big cities with impressive skylines, but I always lived in small places with no skyscrapers to speak of.

Until now! Tampa has a beautiful skyline, and the best part is a building derided by many: The Sykes building, officially the Rivergate Tower, at the corner of Ashley and Kennedy. They call it the “beer can building” because of its cylindrical shape.

But you know what? Cylinders are beautiful! They make your car engine work. In cotton swab form, they can clean hard-to-reach places. And in the shape of buildings, they can turn into iconic structures such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Can you imagine a rectangular-shaped Leaning Tower of Pisa? Or a Leaning Oval of Pisa? Yeah, didn’t think so.

Completed in 1988, the beer can building is majestic. Sitting on the river, just a few hundred yards from Hillsborough Bay, it beckons visitors to downtown Tampa. Like a lighthouse. And what shape is a lighthouse? Yep, exactly.

In downtown Tampa, the Rivergate Tower, designed by architect Harry Wolf, is only No. 6 in terms of height, but it’s surely No. 1 in memorability. At 31 floors, it’s the roughly the same height as the Ritz-Carlton in New York.

The first time I saw the beer can building was in a documentary called Spellbound, which follows the stories of students competing in the national Scripps Howard spelling bee. One of the contestants, Nupur Lala, was from Tampa. The establishing shot of Tampa featured the beer can building. I liked what I saw. That was in the early 2000s. I never imagined that I would live here one day.

While other people poke fun at the beer can building, I admire it. Whenever I drive through downtown, I look at it, and I remember how much I love my new city.

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