Saturday, January 22, 2011

Larger than life: the Kapok Tree Restaurant

Growing up in Florida, I was vaguely aware of the Kapok Tree Restaurant, but I never dined there because I never visited Clearwater. As I began collecting vintage Florida ephemera I kept coming across postcards of the restaurant that looked more like a palace in Europe than any place I'd ever dined. And when I saw photos on Flickr and discovered the website dedicated to preserving the memories of this amazing place, it quickly made my list of places to visit in the Sunshine State. Unfortunately on the day I visited near Thanksgiving, it was anything but sunny, but that did not diminish the grandeur and opulence that was once one of this country's premier eating establishments.

The website created by Ben Mancine is very comprehensive, if you want to know any thing about the amazing place, the information is already online. So thanks to Ben, here is a little history of the Kapok Tree:
  • The namesake Kapok Tree was planted with seedlings from India by citrus grower Robert Hoyt who came to the area in the late 19th century
  • By the 1940s the tree had grown to such a size that it was already a popular local attraction
  • The Kapok Tree Restaurant was created by musician and restaurateur Richard Baumgardner in 1958
  • Postcards of the restaurant read " Country Dinners served beside Florida's Famous Kapok Tree in the midst of exotic tropical gardens." According to the website: "...menu choices were ham, fried chicken, fried shrimp or T-bone steak... all came with roasted potatoes, hush-puppies, green peas served family style and a lazy susan relish tray with creamy cole slaw and famous apple butter..."
  • The Kapok Tree Inns Corporation went public in 1970 and opened other Kapok Tree restaurants in Madiera Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach
  • In 1976, the same year it was named one of the top 100 restaurants in United States, founder Baumgardner passes away
  • After ownership changes and litigation among family members for control of the restaurant chain in the 1980s, the restaurant closed for good in 1991
  • Today the property is owned and maintained by 3 separate business: the Sam Ash Music store, the Players School of Music and the Kapok Special Events Company

The Florida Room featured native plants, floor to ceiling fountains and twenty statues

The Italian Fountains, "the carvings are the work of Morselletto from Vencenza, Italy, whose grandfather built the DuPont mansion in Delaware," says Ben Mancine

The Kapok Tree Mall was over 300 feet long and featured Italian sculpture, gift shops and the ticket booth where one purchased tickets for a ham, chicken, steak or shrimp dinner.

Diners in the Florida Room in 1978


The popular Grand Ballroom featured views of the South Garden and had decorations recreated from the Medici Palace in Florence

Fountain in the Mall as it looked in the mid-twentieth century
Images from the State Archives of Florida
Map of the entire complex

From Ben's Tribute To Clearwater's Fabled Kapok Tree Restaurant website

Vintage postcard of the Red Velvet Lounge

Vintage postcard of the namesake Kapok Tree

Vintage postcard of the Patio Dining Room

My visit to the site was unexpected and I thank my friend Simon for acting as chauffeur. The tree itself is huge and still a powerful presence from the road. We visited the North Gardens first where they appeared to be preparing for a wedding. Despite icky green water in the Italian Fountains, the place appeared to be pretty well maintained. Next we entered the Mall near the ticket booth and were immediately overwhelmed at the scale of the room. Even with musical instruments allover the place it is still a grand space. My immediate reaction was regret that I had not seen it in its prime. But I am still grateful it is largely intact.

The Kapok Tree today

The North Garden

Indoor plants press against the glass, survivors of more glorious days

After wandering around what was the Mall we ducked into the Gallery Room to marvel at the great chandelier. Much of the statuary, light fixtures and interior decoration still remain and seem odd juxtaposed to the garish retail fixtures of the music store. Certain areas are closed to anyone but employees, but we poked our head into to see more amazing spaces, hidden from public view.

The Mall today


The Gallery Room



Much of the building's exterior is covered in beautiful wallpaper-like covering and there is still a great deal of architectural detail. We concluded our trip after exploring the West Garden beneath the canopy of the great tree. I could just see excited snow birds in the 1960s, lined up here to for a big family style dinner in the grandest place they had ever set foot in. If you get a chance to visit pay homage to the remnants of this over -the-top mid-century dining experience, by all means do it!




23 comments:

  1. Wow, thanks for the history of this place and the recent photos! By the amount of souvenir glasses from this place that I've seen in my thrifting I can attest that this was indeed a place the snowbirds dug!

    Congrats on your 300th post! These things add up quickly, don't they?

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  2. Hey Rick, A few years ago my dad took me to the site of the old kapok tree restaurant in Davie (Ft. Lauderdale). It was grown over greek columns and empty ponds but I can see from your pictures how it must have been impressive in it's time.
    It's now a city park but I'm not sure if they've renovated it. It's on the grounds of one of the highest natural ridges in the area that my dad told me used to be used by the native americans. Not sure about the details.

    It's right across the street from Flamingo Gardens, which is definitely a place you'll want to check out if you're exploring South Florida!

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  4. Amy- I'd love to see the one in Davie. It must be on an old Indian shell mound. And I'll ad Flamingo Gardens to my list!

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  5. Great to see the Kapok Tree as it is today, but also sad. We lived in Tampa in the late 60s and often went to the Kapok Tree Restaurant in its heyday. I don't remember prices, but we were recently married and definitely not rich, barely middle class -- just out of college -- so it must have been reasonably priced. I had never had any elegance and I loved the elegance of the Kapok Tree Restaurant. The food was simple, but marvelous. Dining was not rushed; very relaxing. Nothing like today! I am coming back to Florida to live and wish I could eat at the Kapok Tree. I believe the images we see today, even in jewelry, of the Tree of Life are the Kapok [Lupuna] Tree.

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    1. I visited the'tree' in 1971 & again in 1985, & what an experience. I think the price from'85 was around $15--all you could eat. It was a beautiful place, & I am sad that it is no longer!! Truly the Kapok Tree is home to many & does remind me of the tree of life

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  6. Wow, the Kapok Tree. My parents took me there to eat once when I was a kid and I remember thinking it was a palace. I returned for my prom night (my hometown is New Port Richey so not far) and had a Planter's punch. We did have a few of those souvenir glasses, too. I don't remember the food at all.

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  7. Yeah, it must have been reasonbly priced. My parents were quite frugal, but we made the trip from Lutz to Clearwater now and then....and occasionally we hit the Kapok Tree. Very posh to a child from Lutz!!! I remember getting a special treat every time we went there: rock candy.

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    1. Are you related to Joyce Jonaitis? My husband and I were reminiscing aboit the Kapok tree and looked at this site. If so, our parents were good friends
      Carol Hartney

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  8. This has made my day. Your photo #10 of 31 with the 2 ladies and the one man, the smaller white haired lady is my Grandmother. Marguerite Richards Hill. I have been looking for that photo for years. She was actually in 2 postcards for the Kapok Tree. She just happened to be there to eat when the photographer saw her in the red coat and asked if she would mind being in the photos. She and my Grandfather Fred B Hill would spend the winter in Clearwater, they were from Greenwich, NY.

    Thank you for putting this photo on here.

    Nancy Hill Bradford

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  9. I worked there in the early 70's. Anyone remember the awesome corn fritters?

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    1. My totally absolute favorite food memory. I try to duplicate them from time to time. The powdered sugar was the perfect accent!

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  10. My parents used to take me there as a kid all the time for dinners in the Grand Ballroom... what great memories!

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  11. From 1969 through 1971 our Wildwood High School Cheerleaders attended a one day workshop in Clearwater, FL. Afterward, we would go to the beach, then end our day at the Kapok Tree. We made such great memories there. The food was great.The atmosphere was like nothing a bunch of girls from a very small town had ever seen. We visited during the time when local artisans would gather in the garden blowing glass ornaments and sketching charicatures....and yes, we all had one done at one time or another. When we were dating, my first husband and I went there to commemorate our "first anniversary". Unfortunately, there were no artisans in the garden but it was still beautiful and the food was still great. Thank you for posting all the lovely pictures.It was a great walk through a happy period of my young life.--Becky Hampton, Brandon, MS

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  12. I have fond memories of dining at the Kapot Tree with my grandparents. They were snowbirds from Ontario and wintered in Tarpon Springs. My grandparents were not rich either so prices must have been reasonable. I remembering waiting in the Red Lounge till our table was ready in the main dining room. My favourite food was hush puppies!! I visited in the late 60's. I was booking a visit to Florida and wondered if the restaurant was in existance!! Ann- Ottawa (now Alberta)

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  13. I really miss this restaurant, as I went there many times for special occasions as a child and it was just so beautiful. I had many blown glass figurines made for me, but don't believe I still have any of them, sadly. I do still have a few of the souvenir glasses from the restaurant though.

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  14. I was a kid who learned what "kitsch" meant via my wonderful Kapok Tree experiences. On one hand you gush & the other you say "oh gawd! too much!" I wish I could have gone when I was drinking age. :-P

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  15. I have one glass from the restaurant and was taken there by my family grandma grandpa mom and dad with brother and sister in the 70's a great place i remember the smell and all the activity wish it was still there.

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  16. That was a magical place and I will never forget the fountains and statues. I still dream of it!! and the beautiful ballrooms

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  17. I have great memories at Kapok Tree while growing up. It was so beautiful. Being a Cuban girl growing up in Miami turning Fifteen was a pic deal. My Fifteen pictures were taken at Kapok Tree. What great memories going every Sunday for family lunch and walking around. It's a shame it closed and my kids were never able to have great memories there.

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  18. Wow I worked here (and Madeira Beach location as well) for 14 years great memories!! Loved the server job and working in the atmosphere with alot of great peeps!! Did outside catering many great memories THANKS!!!

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  19. Loved going there every summer when on vacation with my family and 3of my moms sisters families i remember sitting at the long tables beautiful place i just was telling my husband about the corn fritters they were awesome it was in 70s my sis &i still talk about the statues and how cool this place was

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  20. I worked at The Kapok Tree in Fort Lauderdale. We didn't appreciate it whilst working there. The gardens were truly lovely. The food certainly wasn't memorable. The Kapok Planters Punch was, though. I worked in the bars of The Kapok Tree. We called it a "Tourist Trap" and most of us locals wouldn't be caught dead there. But, behind the scenes at The Kapok Tree, what a blast! We worked hard and partied harder (after closing hours). Caught a manager getting busy with one of our waitresses on a table in The Garden Room. Didn't really appreciate that at all!

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