Clamshell Roof Returns To Weeki Wachee Mermaid Theater

Photo provided by John Athanason.

Weeki Wachee mermaids sit in front of the original roof in the early 1960s. Photo provided by John Athanason.

Rippling like the water below it, the roof restoration at Newton Perry Underwater Theatre at Weeki Wachee State Park is bringing back a part of old Florida.

The theater’s original roof built in 1959 was designed to resemble a clamshell, according to Denise Tenuto, president of the Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park Citizen Support Organization. It was meant to  lure guests into the unique underwater theater featuring mermaid performances.

John Athanason, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park public relations manager, said the park’s theater and its white clamshell roof were meant to serve as an unconventional billboard. They were built by the park’s former owners, American Broadcasting Corporation.

“We are on U.S. 19, which at that time, was one of the main thoroughfares through Florida,” Athanason said.

Athanason said roadside attractions were popular when Weeki Wachee opened and that the giant clamshell caught the eyes of passing tourists.

“It was just instantly recognizable — this is where the world famous Weeki Wachee mermaids performed,” he said.

Athanason said the park’s owners attempted to modernize the look of the theater in the 1970s by covering the clamshell roof with a generic shingle roof.

“They wanted to keep up,” he said. “Disney was coming into existence at that time, and they wanted to feel like they were making changes.”

Photo provided by John Athanason.

Weeki Wachee mermaids in front of the Newton Perry Underwater Theatre sometime in the 1960s. Photo provided by John Athanason.

Hubert Baxter, FDEP senior architect, said the roof is currently undergoing another transformation, which will take it back to its original clamshell form. It is expected to cost $160,000.

“The present roof had reached the end of its life expectancy,” Baxter said. “We needed to remove the finish—residential asphalt shingles—and restoring it back to the original concrete clamshell form seemed like a better option.”

In addition to the theater roof, Tenuto said the Florida Park Service adopted a master plan for the park’s renovation. It is estimated to cost nearly $14 million.

“I think it is important to restore that unique ele­­­­ment of architecture of that period as part of preserving the cultural and historic value of the park for future generations,” she said.

Athanason said work on the roof began in December 2014 and is expected to be finished before the end of February 2015. Admission price will not be affected.

“Nothing happens in the water where the mermaids perform, it’s just on the roof,” he said. “So there’s no impact to the guest experience when they come into this park.”

The restoration of the roof is something Athanason said he wanted to see happen for a long time. He has received a lot of positive feedback from the public and state historians, who are excited to know this old piece of Florida’s tourism nostalgia still exists.

“As a native Floridian, I love old Florida, everything that is old Florida, and when this opportunity came, to me it was a big deal,” he said. “And then I realized it was a big deal to a lot of other people, which made me feel good.”

There are 27.5 million visitors to Florida state parks and trails each year, according to Martha Robinson, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Bureau of Operational Services communications manager. The FDEP has a mission to preserve, restore and protect those nature-based attractions.

“We have a very nice reputation for quality outdoor recreation and this is certainly a good example to show how we’ve preserved Florida history,” Robinson said.

Athanason said he hopes that when guests walk through the gates of Weeki Wachee, they are thrown back into the ’50s and ’60s.

“That’s the feeling that we want our guests to experience,” he said. “You can experience technology by going to Disney or Universal or some of those other wonderful parks and have a great time, but there’s very few places that you can walk into and experience what Florida used to be like, and that’s one of the things that I think will enhance the park the most.”

Published by WUFT 1/29/15

See all photos here.

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