There is so much to see in St. Petersburg, Florida, an absolutely charming city both in scale and streetscape which has emerged as a cultural center, but with a little planning, 36 hours is just enough to take in the highlights. My first afternoon, I explored the Dali Museum (see 2/12/16), a singular attraction which did much to put St. Pete on the map and trigger an entire renaissance of the city’s waterside downtown, lingering until the museum shut down, and then strolled down Central Avenue to get a taste of the emerging arts districts as night fell.
I occupied the evening at the Sundial, an entertainment center chock-a-block full of lovely restaurants and a movie complex, discovering Locale Market (an even more upscale Whole Foods, if you can believe it), which also has an absolutely delightful restaurant, Farm Table Kitchen.
After a lovely continental breakfast at The Cordova Inn, checking out and stowing my baggage with the hotel, I set out to complete my list of must-see attractions in St. Petersburg, before it is time to leave the city.
Just a short stroll away from the inn is The Museum of Fine Arts, which since my last visit to St. Pete has also been expanded with a whole new wing and atrium. The museum offers an astonishing variety of art works, artists that span eras and genres from antiquity to modern, with each one an absolutely superb example.
In addition to happily coming upon works by some of the most renowned artists who ever painted -Camille Corot, Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Renoir, Wyeth, Childe Hassam (“Home Sweet Home Cottage,” painted in East Hampton, LI, 1916, where he visited) – I discover works by scores of artists I have never heard of before but am completely enthralled. I am thrilled to discover Richard Hall (French, became Finnish), represented by “Gathering at Church Entrance,” (1884); Jacques Emile Blanche (French) with his beautiful impressionist work, “Contemplation,” 1883); Georges Daniel De Manfreu, represented by a superb “Portrait of Gauguin” hung next to a Gauguin painting; Victor Dubreuel (“Barrels of $,” 1898, who made a specialty of painting money because he didn’t have any, that made me smile because of how relevant his theme was to today).
The museum has the feel more of a mansion home than an institution, and there are smaller galleries off main galleries – like A Decorative Arts Gallery featuring stunning works by Tiffany, Steuben – where you can just get totally lost in the art; a gallery featuring a modern installation work, “I Remember Birmingham” (1997) by John Scott (1940-2007); a gallery of pre-Colombian art, another of ancient Indian – you feel you are spanning the millennia and miles of civilization in a few steps.
The Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, Florida was founded by Margaret Acheson Stuart (1896-1980) and opened in 1965.
A special exhibit, “50 for 50” honors the museum’s 50th anniversary since its opening in 1965, with an ambitious goal to see 50 new works for its ever-evolving collection. The collected items show an amazingly eclectic range of interest and appreciation for artistic process – technique, concept with respect. For example, one of the items are giant photographs from space. It is one of the reasons why the Museum of Fine Arts is “Tampa Bay area’s most comprehensive art collection with major works from antiquity to present day.
The original wing of the museum, designed by architect John Volk, has the feeling of a mansion rather than an institution. In March 2008, reflecting the museum’s growth, it opened a two-story modern addition that houses the special exhibition galleries, the Interactive Education Gallery, Library. There’s also a pleasant cafe and sculpture garden.
Allocate at least two hours to appreciate what is here.
Museum of Fine Arts, 255 Beach Dr. NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701, 727-896-2667, www.fine-arts.org.
St. Petersburg Museum of History
The St. Petersburg Museum of History is located around the corner from the Fine Arts Museum, at the entrance to the Pier (now undergoing reconstruction, scheduled to reopen in 2018). This turns out to be a jewel – quite literally since the special exhibit on view is Shipwreck, a fascinating insight into shipwrecks and the modern technology used to discover them and their treasure.
The exhibit spans an amazing span of distinct eras: 1622 shipwreck of the Tortugas, carrying 17,000 objects including gold bars and silver coins; the SS Republic, a passenger ship en route to New Orleans with sorely needed gold and silver to reinvest in the war-torn South, which sunk October1865 in a storm; a 1941 shipwreck of the SS Gairsoppa, a British cargo ship carrying 99 tons of silver, sunk by a U-boat, Artifacts (including gold, silver, rare coins), that have been salvaged, as well as ordinary objects – glass, china- that are mystifying how they survive. (The exhibit ships out June 1).
Another surprisingly fascinating exhibit (even for people who are not huge baseball fans) is “Schrader’s Little Cooperstown” – billed as the “world’s largest collection” of autographed baseballs (4,854) that tell not just the history of “America’s favorite pastime” and baseball’s connection to St. Petersburg (spring training for 100 years, hosting 12 teams), but America’s cultural history, as well. Indeed, a whole showcase devoted to celebrity-signed balls (Olympian Bruce Jenner is one that caught my eye).
A whole wall is presented as a timeline of baseball against a timeline of significant historical events, where there is a 1930s baseball signed by both Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. The timeline is fascinating. (Who knew that Moses Fleetman Walker was the first African American player in the Major Leagues, in 1884?)
Of course, there are the baseballs signed by all the legends: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Shoeless Joe Jackson as well as leagues such as the Women’s Professional Baseball League and the Negro Leagues, It is fun to come upon them, but the display is actually very organized. Schrader’s Little Cooperstown is recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest private collection of autographed baseballs in the world. This semi-permanent exhibit is on view for the next 18 years.
There are real surprises, here, as well. I meet St. Petersburg’s mummy (“Our Lady of the Nile” – an actual, 3000-year old Egyptian mummy which is in an open casket so you can see it in extraordinary detail. (The mummy was x-rayed in 1971 and found to be a 26 year old female). It is part of an exhibit “Life, Death & The Afterlife,” which features a 2600-year old coffin and a replica of King Tut’s Tomb, and a silent film with an Egyptian archeological theme providing an odd musical background. But the story of how this mummy came to be St. Petersburg’s is incredible – it came on a circus boat that needed repairs. When the ship’s captain couldn’t come up with the money to pay the fees, he was forced to give up the cargo; eventually, in 1924, the dockmaster gave the mummy to the city. Something out of Ripley’s Believe it Or Not.
There is also an extremely well done display that tells St. Petersburg’s history, especially its emergence as a tourist destination that coincided with the nation’s economic prosperity and improvements in transportation and infrastructure (and it doesn’t hide its issues with racism).
To highlight that St. Petersburg was the home of the first scheduled commercial flight (between St. Petersburg and Tampa), there is a full-size working replica of the Benoist Airboat, which propelled Tony Jannus into commercial aviation history. suspended from the ceiling taking up the largest room.
Pinellas County’s oldest museum was founded in 1921 as the St. Petersburg Memorial Historical Society. Through the determination and effort of Mary Wheeler Eaton and others, the Society began collecting artifacts, natural history specimens, archival documents, photographs, papers, and “boxes of unknown treasures that were just dropped on our doorstep during the night.”
Allocate an hour or two. St. Petersburg Museum of History, 335 Second Ave. N.E. St. Petersburg, FL 33701, 727) 894-1052, spmoh.com.
There is so much more art to explore in St. Petersburg, you can easily occupy all your time immersed in art: Morean Arts Center features these sites: Chilhuly Collection, a permanent collection of artist Dale Chihuly’s glass sculpture set in a 10,000 sq./ ft museum building designed by architect Alberto Alfonso, featuring such important installations as the Ruby Red Icicle Chandelier, the Float Boat and the Sunset Persian Wall. A separate exhibition space features glass artists from around the world in rotating exhibits. It is located a short walk away from the Fine Arts Museum. (400 Beach Drive NE, 727-896-4527); Morean Glass Studio & Hotshop (719 Central Avenue, 727-827-4527); Morean Arts Center (719 Central Ave, 727-822-7872) and Morean Center for Clay (420 22 St S, 727-821-7162), MoreanArtsCenter.org.
The Warehouse Arts District, once the industrial area, has been transformed into an arts destination, and stretches from 1st Avenue North to 10th Avenue South, and from 16th Street to 31 Street (727-826-7211, whereartismade.com). Follow the Art Map, artsstpete.org. Enjoy the St. Petersburg Art Walk the second Saturday, encompassing the Waterfront, Central Arts, EDGE, Grand Central and Warehouse Arts District, when galleries, warehouses and art studios are open late.
It is delightful to walk or hop the quaint trolley-style bus (the Downtown Looper fare is just 50c, (there are free fare zones, and there’s a free Baseball Shuttle for select games) as well. The trolley actually provides a wonderful sightseeing experience.
A fuller exploration of the arts districts will have to wait for a return visit to St. Pete. Because of my time limitations before I must leave St. Pete, I set a bee-line for the Florida Holocaust Museum (see next).
(For more vacation planning information, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater: 8200 Bryan Dairy Road, Suite 200, Largo, FL 33777, 727-464-7200, 877-352-3224 www.visitstpeteclearwater.com.)
See: Florida Holocaust Museum
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