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.

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