ST. PETERSBURG — In the early 1990s, anxious city officials watched as downtown struggled.
Restoration work had begun on the Renaissance Vinoy Resort with an unknown future. A proposed $200 million outdoor shopping center had flamed out. The city had a baseball stadium, but no team.
Then the Florida International Museum moved into the shell of an abandoned department store, displaying some of the most priceless artifacts of Russian history.
Over a six-month period in 1995, 600,000 people came to see "Treasures of the Czars" at the museum. After years of tantalizing nibbles, the city had finally hooked a monster fish.
Influential players from that time credit the museum with kicking off a wave of downtown revitalization — from shops and restaurants to BayWalk.
Less widely remembered is the woman at the center of the "Czars" exhibit, whose Russian background and training at the Smithsonian Institution helped shape her expertise in Russian icons and historical objects.
She went on to shepherd other exhibits at the museum on the Titanic, Peruvian Incas and President John F. Kennedy while also consulting for the St. Petersburg Museum of History and the Tampa Museum of Art.
Mrs. Vera Espinola-Beery died Dec. 26 in Myakka City, where she had lived for several years, of a rare brain disorder. She was 79.
Mrs. Espinola-Beery came into view as a uniquely suited candidate to head the "Czars" exhibit thanks in part to downtown developer Ira Mitlin. In 1992, Mitlin was serving on a civic committee aimed at bringing a major exhibit here, preferably from Russia.
"I said I knew somebody who is with the Smithsonian with great credentials," said Mitlin, 89. "If we could get her, you'd be getting the tops in the field."
The invitation came about a year after Mrs. Espinola-Beery's first husband, obstetrician Mario Espinola, had died of a heart attack. From 1993 to 1995, she often put in 100-hour weeks writing object labels, training docents and lecturing at local colleges and museums.
Even unwrapping shipped artifacts was "very nerve-wracking," said Karen Dakin, her daughter. "Priceless isn't even a word that describes it."
Mrs. Espinola-Beery traveled to Russia five times to meet with curators and plan the exhibit, gaining rare access to the Kremlin museums. In 1994, accompanied by then-St. Petersburg Mayor David Fischer and then-St. Petersburg Junior College president Carl Kuttler, she went to St. Petersburg, Russia. Their guide for three days: a mayor's emissary named Vladimir Putin.
"Treasures of the Czars," containing more than 270 works of art depicting all aspects of life for Romanov czars and czarinas between 1613 and 1917, generated national publicity and lines around the block. Artists painted walls to resemble the inside of Russian palaces to enhance the experience. Tourists and locals wandered by china sets used by the czars, armor worn by Peter the Great and an ermine cloak worn by Catherine the Great.
The centerpiece was a gold- and jewel-encrusted 1913 Faberge egg, with translucent white enamel and diamond-framed portraits commemorating 300 years of Romanov rule.
"It tells the story of the czars in a way that was never permitted to be told before, in the time of the Soviet empire," Mrs. Espinola-Beery said in a 1995 interview.
The payoff was almost immediate, as shops and restaurants opened to serve visitors.
"We were kind of in the doldrums with the stadium and no team," Fischer said. "Then along comes 'Treasures of the Czars' and sparks the whole city."
Soon, other business ventures took off.
"The success of the (museum's) exhibits certainly contributed to helping us get up the nerve to build BayWalk," Craig Sher, the executive chairman of the Sembler Co., said in 2005.
The woman behind the triumph was born in Chicago to Russian immigrants. When her father, an inventor, got sick, the family went "from riches to rags," said Dakin, 51.
From that experience, Mrs. Espinola-Beery learned to make the best out of any situation. She raised four children before earning a master's degree from George Washington University in museum studies, a program that involved training at the Smithsonian. She later consulted for the Smithsonian and other museums, co-authored a book about Russian icons and lectured on religious masks worn by Aleutian Eskimos.
After moving to St. Petersburg in 1988, Mrs. Espinola-Beery became active in her Russian Orthodox church, helped found the Russian Heritage group and served as its first president. In 1994 she married Bruce Beery, who died four years later.
After modest success with exhibits on ancient Egypt and Alexander the Great, the Florida International Museum again scored in 1997 with "Titanic: the Exhibition," which coincided with the release of the movie Titanic.
The museum never managed to replicate its earlier glories. It struggled with debt to the city, moved to a smaller annex building and leased space from St. Petersburg College.
A year ago, it closed its doors for good.