St. Pete reinvents itself as a vibrant art mecca

The landmark Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., has the latest amenities and a rich history.
The landmark Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club in St. Petersburg, Fla., has the latest amenities and a rich history.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — "They used to call this place God's waiting room," my taxi driver offered by way of conversation on the drive from the airport to my hotel.

Not a particularly sensitive or politically correct comment perhaps, but one that I knew held a ring of truth. As a child, I remember my Uncle Jim paying twice-yearly visits to an elderly relative with a large bank account and a small bungalow in this city on a peninsula between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico on Florida's west coast.

But after a long weekend in this sunny metropolis, I discovered that times had changed. Sure, plenty of senior citizens have had the good sense (and the capital) to move here, but they're not waiting for anything, except maybe tee times, tango lessons and tai chi classes. And they've been joined by hip twenty-, thirty-, forty- and fifty-somethings who have discovered that colorful and vibrant St. Petersburg today is anything but an urban retirement home.

That is due, in large part, to its emerging prominence as an art center. And that is due, in large part, to two D's: Dali and Dale.

Unique museums

Imagine for a moment that a prominent American collector of one of the world's foremost modern artists offered to donate his entire collection to any city willing to provide a home for it. Which city would you expect to be first in line — New York, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, ...? If you picked St. Petersburg, move to the head of the class.

Cleveland philanthropist A. Reynolds Morse and his wife, Eleanor, spent 45 years forging a friendship with Spanish artist Salvador Dali and his wife, Gala. During that time, they amassed an impressive collection of the artist's works spanning each of his various periods, Impressionist, Cubist, Abstract and Surrealist periods.

Late in his life, Morse offered the entire collection — 96 oil paintings, plus thousands of watercolors, drawings, photos, graphics and sculptures — to any city that agreed to his terms. Not only did his own hometown fail to come through, but so did all of the other bastions of culture.

Enter St. Petersburg's artistic community, which pledged $3 million to bring the collection to the city and renovated a warehouse on Bayboro Harbor to house it. It was here that I saw the collection — the most comprehensive outside of Spain — but come January, Dali will have a different domain.

A new $36 million building on the downtown waterfront will feature a skylight for natural lighting and twice as much space as the current museum space, allowing the collection to be shown in its entirety. Take that, New York and Boston.

It's likely that Dali would have loved the phantasmagoria of colors and shapes in the works of Dale Chihuly, often referred to as "the Picasso of glass blowing." Chihuly's elaborate glass sculptures can be found in the Bellagio Hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, London's Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island in the Bahamas. But the first gallery in the world designed specifically for his glass works opened in July on St. Petersburg's waterfront.

The museum itself is a work of art, with a series of "jewel box" chambers, designed to be intimate and to showcase each glass work, including the Float Boat, the spectacular Persian Ceiling, the Blue Neon Tumbleweed and the Ruby Red Icicle Chandelier.

After a visit to the Chihuly Collection (where tickets are issued at 15-minute intervals so it does not get crowded), make a stop at the nearby Morean Art Center's Glass Studio and Hot Shop. There, you can watch expert glassblowers at work, and you can try your hand (and mouth) at creating your own piece.

The veranda beckons

From something new (Chihuly Collection) to something old (Vinoy Hotel), you have but to cross the street. On the opposite side of the marina, the Renaissance-style Vinoy has been a St. Petersburg fixture for 85 years. (For nearly 20 of those years, from 1974 to 1992, it stood empty and was on the brink of demolition when, in timely fashion, it was saved from the wrecking ball.)

I confess that I love old, historic hotels. Give me plush chairs like those on the Vinoy's large veranda that I can sink into and toast the sunset with a glass of wine. And the Vinoy's restaurant boasts original frescoes and a wait staff dressed as if it's still the Roaring '20s.

After a $93 million renovation and its reopening in 1992, some things changed. It's now the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club, with the addition of an 18-hole course and new tower accommodations, and in tribute to its neighbor, Chihuly, it has a breathtaking cone-shaped chandelier composed of 750 pieces of silver and amber glass suspended from the ceiling of the Grand Ballroom.

Thankfully, however, much has remained the same. In addition to that spacious veranda, guests can admire the Mediterranean Revival architecture, stroll in the lovely tea garden, and join resident historian Elaine Normile on her hotel history tour (Wednesday through Saturday; $5 for guests, $10 for non-guests), on which she recounts stories of famous past guests, including Presidents Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge, actors James Stewart and Marilyn Monroe, and baseball legends Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio.

Take a boat to Gulfport

The best way to get around St. Petersburg is to take the trolley, which stops at attractions including the Museum of Fine Arts (considered one of the best in the Southeast), the 4-acre Sunken Gardens, and the landmark Pier, with its shops, restaurants and aquarium. Nightlife flourishes among the jazz clubs on Central Avenue and the martini bars on Baywalk. For a truly different experience, go by trolley or better yet, by boat, to Gulfport, a quirky village on Boca Ciega Bay. With its tropical foliage, swaying palms and brick-lined sidewalks, it's "Old Florida" at its best.

Reminiscent of Key West, Gulfport's proliferation of artists and artisans has resulted in twice-monthly Art Walks (first Friday and third Saturday); at least a dozen restaurants attract throngs of diners every night of the week; and people from across the Tampa-St. Pete-Clearwater area flock here for the five-nights-a-week salsa, swing, Argentine tango and ballroom dances at the Waterfront Casino Ballroom.

You're sure to find among them a bevy of silver-haired foxes who are not ready yet for God's waiting room.