St. Pete's Cultural Attractions Prove Just as Engaging To Kids As Beach
By Karen Rubin

I hear JFK's voice in the letter he penned to a close friend just after the PT 109 incident, philosophizing about war, and think about her reply, telling him he is destined for greatness; I hear Jackie's voice in the five-page, hand-written thank-you note to his loyal secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, after she attended Caroline's first communion, not long after the assassination. It is an extraordinary feeling to be in that place, in that moment, in the mind of these stellar figures that not only shaped history, were history, but people to whom we all felt somehow personally connected.

These exhibits are part of the Kennedy Galleries, now a permanent exhibition at the Florida International Museum (which last year became part of the Smithsonian Institution and opened year-round for the first time). The Galleries include full-size re-creations of the Oval Office, the Rose Garden, the West Wing of the White House, a Jacqueline Kennedy gallery, two theater presentations and an audio guided tour, and 600 items of a personal nature relating to the Kennedy family.

This incredible Kennedy exhibition would be reason enough to visit St. Petersburg, it is that extraordinary. The exhibit essentially is made up of the remarkable collection of Evelyn Lincoln, Kennedy's personal assistant for 12 years, which she willed to Robert White. An avid collector of Kennedy memorabilia (as well as many other collections), Mr. White became Mrs. Lincoln's close friend. It is almost eerie how Mrs. Lincoln also had this sense of Kennedy's place in history, and collected every scrap that would otherwise have been tossed into the garbage.

The exhibit is brilliantly arranged to give you a sense of time and place. I am transfixed as I walk through the rooms, guided along with a narration on a cassette, but I am only half listening, fascinated to read the material, study the photographs and objects. The first area is a sepia-toned façade of the Kennedy birthplace in Brookline, Massachusetts; you can see JFK's christening ring and a guest book page from May 12, 1939 signed by eight of the Kennedy children and their parents on the occasion of Pope Pius XII's coronation. A theater presentation follows, which is done in an old newsreel style, giving visitors an overview of the family as well as highlights of Jack and Jackie Kennedy's wedding. The next gallery holds a recreation of the PT 109 incident, and you find yourself facing a large Japanese destroyer during World War II; it was here that you can read a draft letter Kennedy wrote to a former girlfriend in which he says "any war is stupid."

Other galleries are devoted to his courtship and marriage (there is an original wedding invitation and a doodle from 1952 in which Se. Kennedy draws his future wife's name), and marvelous political campaign memorabilia.

In the room recreated to look like the Oval Office, there is a tiny, fading terry robe that had been John John's, as well as the contents of Kennedy's desk including a note given to remind him to speak with Dr. Weisner about the neutron bomb on which he doodled a large mushroom cloud and wrote the word "bomb." Above the mantle is a portrait of President Kennedy on loan from the National Portrait Gallery (never loaned out before). Another gallery is devoted to Jacqueline Kennedy as mother, wife and First Lady, including a mother-of-pearl photo case that she used to carry her photos of Caroline and John Jr.

Other sections cover subjects such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, Civil Rights, the Space Program, and then the Countdown to Dallas. One entire wall has the front page of newspapers from around the world announcing the death of President Kennedy. Somehow, the effect is not maudlin, but conveys a sense of eternity.

The Cuban Missile Crisis is treated in an equally effective "you-are-there" style in a new exhibit at Florida International Museum, "The Cuban Missile Crisis: When the Cold War Got Hot," which includes over 300 articles from the period of October 1962. There is an even more deliberate effort to make you feel transported back into time, walking through a "retro" living room (commercial from the era, telling you what to do in the event an atom bomb is dropped is played), a kitchen, and a realistic fallout shelter complete with CONELRAD alert and sirens, recreated for the exhibition.

You follow a series of day-by-day panels and a timeline of events, utilizing declassified documents that give you this amazing behind-the-scenes view of activities surrounding the Cuban Missile Crisis. By the time you reach Day Seven, you see President Kennedy's address to the nation of Oct. 22 playing on a vintage television set while you sit in a period living room. Significant pieces include a Soviet SA-2 Missile, the Russian engineering model of Sputnik, U2 flight suit used by a CIA pilot, vintage fallout shelter supplies, and numerous props used in the motion picture, "Thirteen Days."

The Cold War mentality and atomic bomb paranoia that permeated the nation comes vividly back to life. A school room setting, with a 1951 Civil Defense documentary featuring "Bert the Turtle," shows youngsters how to "duck and cover" brought back memories of elementary school.

There is even a section with artwork collected in Cuba, and archival newspapers from 1962 obtained from Cuba's National Library and the Revolution Museum showing the Cuban side of the crisis.

You should allocate three to four hours to see the Kennedy Galleries, and one to two hours for the Cuban Missile Crisis. In addition, Florida International Museum offers special exhibitions (past exhibits have included, "Titanic: The Exhibition," "Alexander the Great," and a current one, "Countdown to Eternity" consisting of photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr.. A one-day pass to the museum is $13.95/adults, $12.95/seniors, $5.95/students; and children under six are admitted free. The museum, which is located at 100 Second Street North (727-822-3693), is open Monday-Saturday, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m.; last admission is at 4:30 p.m. (www.floridamuseum.org).

The Florida International Museum is in the cultural heart of Downtown St. Petersburg where there are six other museums plus more than two dozen galleries, a thriving restaurant district and marvelous antiques shopping that have turned St. Petersburg (known as Florida's Beach) into Florida's Cultural Coast.

The museum that probably put St. Petersburg on the map, though, is the Salvador Dali Museum, which opened in 1982. This impressive structure, set on the Bayboro Harbor, offers the world's most comprehensive collection of works by the famous surrealist Spanish artist, Salvador Dali. There are 95 oil paintings, 100 watercolors and drawings, 1,300 graphics, plus posters, photographs, sculptures, object d'art and an extensive archival library on Dali and Surrealism. Although Dali is best known for his surrealist period (1929-1939), the collection contains works dating from 1914 and spans his lifetime. Indeed, of the 18 so-called "master works" produced by Dali, six are located in the St. Petersburg museum, including the incredible "Discovery of America."

The collection, valued at $125 million, was donated by Cleveland industrialist, A. Reynolds Morse and his wife Eleanor, for the benefit of the people of Florida (and now, the world). Beginning with their purchase of Dali's "Daddy Longlegs of the Evening…Hope!" in 1942, they began a lifelong relationship with Dali and his wife, Gala, and became Dali's most loyal collectors and boosters. The presentation is marvelous, with plenty of room to appreciate each work; the guided tour is fascinating; even the Museum store is marvelous, with surreal mementos. It was remarkable to see how engaged even children are in this fascinating artist's work. Allocate two or three hours to visit. (Salvador Dali Museum, 1000 Third St., S., St. Petersburg; open Monday-Saturday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Thursday, 9:30 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5:30 p.m.; $9/adults, $7/seniors; $5/students; children 10 and under free; on Thursday, admission is half price after 5 p.m.; 727-823-3767, www.salvadordalimuseum.org).

Just as the Dali Museum was created by people from other places who basically fell in love with St. Petersburg and established a connection here, the Museum of Fine Arts also was established, single-handedly, by Margaret Acheson Stuart (cousin of Lila Acheson of Readers' Digest), who wintered in St. Petersburg and was distressed it had no fine arts museum. Her personal collection provided the foundation for this remarkable institution which she founded in 1965. "She mobilized the community," the docent tells us on our tour. "Mrs. Stuart's dream was that people in the community would have direct contact with world masters--Cezanne, Gaugin. It is a small collection of enormously high quality."

Today, the Museum of Fine Arts has the only comprehensive art collection, extending from antiquity to the present day, on the Florida west coast. It offers more than 4,000 objects that includes important works by the French artists Monet, Gauguin, Renoir, Morisot, Cezanne, and Rodin, and by Americans Henri, Bellows, O'Keeffe and Rauschenberg. It offers excellent collections of African, Asian, pre-Columbian and American Indian objects, as well as photographs. There is a dramatic gallery devoted to Steuben glass. "So many people retire here, and bring their collections."

The Fine Arts museum is housed in what looks more like an exquisite mansion rather than a museum (you feel you are coming into a private home), and in fact, is reminiscent of the Frick Collection in New York City. The works are very accessible and there are marvelous docent-led tours. Children will find it very welcoming and will have an opportunity to see an extraordinary span of art. What is more, the museum is right on Beach Road, pretty much in the middle of shops, restaurants, and on the walkway into The Pier area. (Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. on Sunday; admis is $6/adults, $5 for seniors, $2/students older than six; Sunday afternoons are free; 255 Beach Drive NE, 727-896-2667, www.fine-arts.org).

All the museums in Downtown are connected via a marvelous trolley service called The Looper, though many are walking distance. Downtown is also home to Florida Craftsman Gallery's state headquarters and the recently expanded Arts Center. American Stage, Tampa Bay's only resident professional acting troupe, is also based here. Working artists have plenty of studio space (sometimes open to the public) at Salt Creek Artworks and ArtSpace. The Bayfront Center, Mahaffey Theater and the Palladium also provide venues for performing arts. There is so much art in downtown, in fact, that the local merchants association promotes the district as the QuARTer.

Holocaust Museum On one bright morning, we hop the Looper at the stop just outside where we are staying, at the Renaissance Vinoy Hotel, enjoyed the pleasant ambiance, and soon leave the sunlight and good cheer to willingly descend into a nightmare of modern history, the Holocaust. St. Petersburg's Florida Holocaust Museum is the fourth largest Holocaust Museum in the nation. Its president, John Loftus was formerly with the CIA and authored a book, "Secret War Against the Jews." Elie Wiesel is the Honorary Chairman.

We enter into a room where there is a heart-wrenching film, "Daniel's Story," then go through what appears to be a stock-car door into the exhibit hall. Through a collection of photographs, testimonies, and historical artifacts relating to the Holocaust, the visitor is taken from the flourishing pre-war life of Eastern Europe, through the events of the Holocaust, concentration camps and ultimately, the birth of Israel. In the central atrium of the exhibition space is an actual boxcar, Auschwitz Boxcar # 113 0695-5, resting on railroad tracks from Treblinka, which was once used by the Nazis to transport Jews and other men, women and children to the killing centers.

The exhibit is extremely well presented (some might consider it mild compared to the Washington DC Holocaust Museum). It effectively conveys the tragedy of people-Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses--who are persecuted and extinguished because they are deemed unfit. More importantly, it documents the process of degradation and dehumanization and the fact that Hitler could not have accomplished what he did, the near extinction of a people, without the help and complicity of others. The lesson of the Holocaust Museum is to recognize and fight bigotry, hatred and prejudice, and to teach tolerance and appreciation of diversity.

Our sons absorbed it all. The 12 year old, coming into adulthood when he will have to assume the responsibility for holding such abhorrent memories, asked probing questions that defy answer: "Why?" "How?"

A remarkable element of the museum is its exhibit hall. We were fortunate to see an art exhibit by Sam Bak of works from 1946 to 2000. Interestingly considering we had just seen the surrealism of Salvador Dali, Mr. Bak is also a surrealist, but incorporates the images from his experience, growing up in the Vilna Ghetto, and miraculously surviving the Holocaust with his mother, when his father and gradparents did not. He had his first solo show in the ghetto at the age of nine. The paintings are powerful, profound, and stirring and utterly awesome in skill. Hardly whimsical (as Dali seems to be), every symbol expresses volumes and gives form to metaphysical ideas (Florida Holocaust Museum, weekdays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., weekends, noon to 5 p.m.; $6; $5/seniors and college students; $2 students 18 and under; 55 Fifth St. South; 727-820-0100, www.flholocaustmuseum.org).

For more information, contact the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, 877-FL-BEACH, www.FloridasBeach.com, or the St. Petersburg Office of Cultural Affairs, 800-874-9007, www.stpete.org. For reservations at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, 501 Fifth Ave., NE, St. Petersburg, 800-HOTELS-1, www.renaissancehotels.com, or Historic Hotels of America, 800-678-8946.

See also: St. Petersburg: Florida's Beach; Renaissance Vinoy Hotel

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