History, with its naked truths, arrives at St. Petersburg High

St. Petersburg High students will restore a solarium set for a museum.
Published April 20 2013
Updated April 20 2013


In the lobby of the Renaissance Vinoy Resort on Friday, hotel guests checked in, checked out and, above all, checked their smartphones. They chatted through oversized sunglasses about overpacked suitcases ("How should I know what I'm going to want to wear?") and sipped fruit-infused water. In other words, it was difficult to imagine any of the hotel's guests taking their clothes off in public.

And yet.

In the back of the Tea Garden, just beyond the fountain where folding chairs were set out for a wedding rehearsal, sat a small pink shed with white trim and a storied history of disrobed guests.

Called a solarium, it was popular in the 1920s and '30s when doctors believed the Florida sunshine could cure anything: rickets, arthritis, the sniffles. They asked patients to practice "heliotherapy," which felt more appropriate on a doctor's note than "nude sunbathing."

Now, the roof that formerly lifted off was painted shut. The only sunlight snuck in through holes in the rotted wood. It was just after 1:30 p.m. on Friday when a one-man crew arrived to haul the hut off to St. Petersburg High. Students in the school's construction technologies program have promised to replace the wood and paint before giving the solarium to the Museum of History.

To clarify, there will be no nude sunbathing at St. Petersburg High School, although history teacher Rui Farias said his students' eyes did light up at the prospect. "No, that is why we're locking it up inside," he said. The solarium is to be stored in the school's maintenance building.

Farias is on the board of the Museum of History, and he did not have an easy time finding a crew with experience uprooting and transporting a 1920s tanning bed. He settled on Rob Bennett, owner of Florida Shed Movers in Trinity. "Relocating? Take your shed with you," Bennett's business card reads.

Bennett agreed to take a shot at it. So on Friday afternoon, with a sunburn on his face, a sweat stain on his stomach, and probably the first audience he's had in a long time, he got on the ground with a power drill and began separating the solarium from the Vinoy.

Bennett screwed the solarium onto wooden blocks, then attached those blocks to wheels. He hooked it onto a small black motor, then started to lead the structure out of the Tea Garden.

All was almost lost when the solarium tipped around a corner, mangling a bed of irises. But with the help of hotel staff and a jack, Bennett was able to wheel the solarium the 200 feet across the lawn to his truck at the front of the Vinoy.

As he pulled the white Silverado out of the parking lot for a straight shot across 5th Avenue North, the solarium creaked. A few of the hotel's guests looked up. They took their fingers off their phones just long enough to jerk their thumbs toward the little pink shed and wonder what in the world it could be.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected] You can also follow her on Twitter (@lisagartner).