Saturday, January 29, 2011

Exploring Potter's Wax Museum

Potters Wax Museum is one of those old Florida attractions that I've taken for granted because I thought it was just too "touristy" for a real Floridian to visit. Two things got me to finally pay admission to what claims to be America's first wax museum: my passion to visit all the surviving old Florida tourist attractions and Ponce de Leon. Founded by George L. Potter in 1949, the entrance fee is fairly reasonable by today's standards, but the attraction is pretty small too. It was originally located further east at the corner of Menendez Avenida and King Street. At some point, however, they moved into their current location, assuming the spot once occupied by Walgreens in the Ponce de Leon Shopping Center. In researching this unassuming Mediterranean Revival structure, I stumbled upon a bit of interesting history:

"In 1955 Lapidus (Morris Lapidus architect of Miami Beach's famed Fontainebleau Hotel) created the Ponce de Leon Shopping Center near the plaza in St. Augustine, the Nation's Oldest City. The anchor store, Woolworth's, was the scene of the first sit-in by black demonstrators from Florida Memorial College in March, 1960, and in 1963 four young teenagers, who came to be known as the "St. Augustine Four" were arrested at the same place and spent the next six months in jail and reform school, until national protests forced their release by the governor and cabinet of Florida in January 1964. Martin Luther King hailed them as "my warriors." The Woolworth's door-handles remain as a reminder of the event, and a Freedom Trail marker has been placed on the building by ACCORD, in its efforts to preserve the historic sites of the civil rights movement."

I must have missed the Freedom Trial marker and shot the photo of the Woolworth's door handle only by chance. On a previous trip I stumbled upon the marker of the site where a motel manager poured acid in the swimming pool an effort to get African Americans bathers to leave. St. Augustine has a rich role in the struggle for Civil Rights, but it isn't widely publicized.

Earlier location of the museum further east

Vintage brochure, probably when the museum had more elaborate sets (and space) for the wax figures at the previous location

I found these promotional images from the 1960s in the State Archives, shot when the museum was a bit fresher (and larger) than it is today.

State Archives of Florida

Today's journey through time at Potter's, begins with characters from the bible, followed by figures from the Middle Ages and British royalty. The chronological order is not strict, so one might find a bizarre juxtaposition like Princess Di standing behind Queen Victoria. Nearby I found Ponce de Leon hanging out with Menendez, looking towards Robert E. Lee and other Confederate Civil War generals. The wax figures are packed tightly together and much of the museum is dark. There were very few visitors on the day I visited, and I have to admit it was slightly creepy. More than once I remember the Wild Wild West episode where the figures in a wax museum turned out to be evil robots.

Looks like they need to hit Ponce's armor with some steel wool as it's getting rusty

The section with U.S. presidents is every bit as campy as the one at the President Hall of Fame in Clermont; JFK looks like he has Donald Trump's hair and Ladybird Johnson looks like she was embalmed rather than made of wax. One soon transitions into a recent pop culture area where a Harry Potter section is probably very popular with today's kids, and nearby celebrities from Brittany Spears to Micheal Jackson are holdovers from the days when they were at the top of super stardom.

I find the wax figures appealing in the same inexplicable way I find taxidermy appealing. The figures look lifelike but they have a surreal out of context aspect that always intrigues me. While it's not one of St. Augustine's larger or more elaborate attractions any more, I really enjoyed my visit there.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Larger than life: the Kapok Tree Restaurant

Note: Since this post was published in 2011, the Kapok Tree tribute website sadly disappeared. 

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 anything 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: " 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 coleslaw 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 snowbirds 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!