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St. Petersburg Museum reopens with new exhibits, expectations

At this 99-year-old facility, Grandma’s attic meets backyard archaeology.

They moved the mummy. The leathery, 3,000-year-old “Lady of the Nile” now lies in her coffin across from the two-headed, six-legged calf named “Half-and-Half.”

“This is some of the craziest stuff in the world,” said Rui Farias, 57, who directs the St. Petersburg Museum of History. “When I was a kid, I’d come here every Saturday and drop my quarter to hang out with the mummy.”

Farias had big plans for overhauling and expanding the museum, which has sat on the approach to the Pier for 99 years.

He wanted to modernize the main gallery, add 10,000 square feet of exhibit space (about 62 percent more), build a rooftop terrace. He worked with consultants, who drew plans for interactive exhibits, where kids could drive a train, construct a skyscraper and slide their fingers across a map to make railroad tracks appear.

Then the coronavirus hit.

“The whole trend in museums is people want to play with things,” Farias said. “Now, we’re having to rethink everything.”

The museum closed in early March, because of the pandemic. It reopened July 8, in the shadow of the new Pier.

Red arrows on the floor point visitors through exhibits, which are spread out, so people won’t crowd the glass cases. Tables with bottles of hand sanitizer sit where children were supposed to play.

“It would’ve been really cool and kid-friendly. Hopefully, it still will be — some day,” Farias said.

“But I’m so proud of these new exhibits and all we’ve done to improve the museum and adapt.”

Over the last two years, as he oversaw the museum’s makeover, Farias had to choose what collections to keep on display, what to shelve and what to bring out of storage: Like President William Howard Taft’s plus-sized pajamas. He had to figure out what stories to tell and how to tell them: Like Webb’s City, the World’s Most Unusual Drug Store.

Farias knew he had to keep the mummy — one of the original artifacts.

He also knew he had to update the attraction.

Despite the shutdown, museum workers, volunteers and contractors were able to update the main gallery, tear down walls, refinish floors. They added a section called “Building the Sunshine City.” And stored some of the early tourism brochures, souvenirs from the Festival of States parade, hundreds of fishing poles, reels and lures.

The centerpiece of the glass-walled flight room is still the life-sized replica of Tony Jannus’ plane Benoist, which completed the first commercial flight in the country — across Tampa Bay. Visitors can still see the original engine, the pilot’s broken goggles and a grainy video of the 1914 flight.

The main gallery at the St. Petersburg Museum of History.
The main gallery at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

They can still learn about the dug-out canoe dredged from Crescent Lake, see wooden seats from a century-old trolley and check out 4,999 autographed baseballs. (There were supposed to be 5,000 …)

In the new “Odditorium,” which houses the mummy, they’ll also get to see Geronimo’s signature, Gen. George Armstrong Custer’s reading glasses, a necklace made of hair from President Millard Fillmore’s family.

“A lot of stuff in our main gallery now has never been seen,” Farias said. “A lot more — some of the oldest artifacts — are still waiting in storage until we can get our expansion built.”

Clocks and other artifacts are archived at the museum. Some of it has yet to be cataloged.
Clocks and other artifacts are archived at the museum. Some of it has yet to be cataloged. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

***

Walk in the door, and the first thing you see is a portrait of the museum’s founder: Mary Wheeler Eaton. She’s wearing a wide-brimmed hat rimmed with flowers and a pearl necklace.

Employees say her eyes follow them — and her ghost haunts the building. They have seen her hovering over the baseball cases, watched her shadow drift across the flight room, heard her footsteps on the second story. One night after the museum closed, the bookkeeper swears the ghost flushed the toilet.

“She’s protecting this place,” Farias said. “This was her dream. She made this happen.”

Eaton, whose family owned one of the city’s largest citrus groves, helped found the St. Petersburg Memorial Historical Society in 1920. She and members of other pioneer families collected artifacts and antiques and stored them in their homes.

The next year, after a hurricane destroyed an aquarium at the end of the Million Dollar Pier, Eaton persuaded the City Council to give the battered building to the historical society — and converted it into the city’s first museum.

Most of the original exhibits were donated. A snowbird’s entire estate. Treasures unearthed from attics. “People would drop boxes on the museum’s doorstep, saying their grandmother had just died, and they didn’t know what to do with her stuff,” Farias said.

It was difficult to document where things had come from or authenticate the stories scrawled on slips of paper.

The mummy, legend says, came from the captain of a ship carrying carnival exhibits who docked at the Pier. His boat needed repairs, but he couldn’t pay for them. So he traded the mummy and her ancient coffin to the dockmaster, who gave them to the museum.

Custer’s glasses were donated by someone who said he met him; but the general was never photographed wearing glasses. The man who bequeathed Taft’s pajamas said he had held onto them because “he never found a man big enough to wear them.”

The Odditorium includes these reading glasses, believed to have belonged to George Armstrong Custer.
The Odditorium includes these reading glasses, believed to have belonged to George Armstrong Custer. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Many of the artifacts in the Odditorium, especially, are not actually about St. Petersburg. “But they all tell the story of Florida,” Farias said. “We’ve always had people from all over come and settle here.”

Farias’ parents owned a retirement home near what is now Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital. He teaches history at St. Petersburg High School and took over the museum five years ago. “My dream job,” he said. Most of the workers always have been volunteers, and the record-keeping and archives need organizing. Farias hired an accountant and archivist and wants to catalog the entire inventory.

“We have treasures here that we don’t even know we have,” he said. “Every time we open another box from storage, it’s like Christmas. We just need so much more display room.”

The city gave the museum $1 million to build the expansion; another $2.8 million will come from county tourism funds. Overall, Farias expects the next phase to cost $6.8 million. He hopes construction will start in January. “We want to have everything finished for our 100th year.”

Now that the museum has reopened, he’s banking on visitors. Between 2017 and 2020, while the Pier was under construction, the museum lost 60 percent of its annual $100,000 in admissions revenue and another $100,000 in events. “We’re running on reserves,” Farias said. “We hope to at least break even by 2021.”

Katie Ramsberger, chairwoman of the 12-member Board of Directors, said she hopes the museum draws people interested in seeing how the city evolved.

“I just really want us to become relevant and stay relevant,” she said. “We’re a fun place to revisit the past and learn something new.”

When the new space opens, visitors will be able to see artifacts from Florida’s ancient history that have sat in storage for decades, including mastodon bones found in 1958 in a neighborhood near 54th Avenue S and the claw of a giant ground sloth estimated to be 15,000 years old.

“We want to tell our state’s story, from the earliest moment through the present day,” Farias said. “But for now, we’re starting with the birth of St. Petersburg. As a city, we’re really not that old.”

***

The main exhibit, which just opened, starts with portraits of founding fathers John Williams and Peter Demens, who brought the first railroad to St. Petersburg in 1888. Demens, a Russian nobleman, named the new Florida city after his birthplace. When the first train arrived, only 30 people lived in the waterfront town. Two years later, the census lists 270 permanent residents.

Along the ramp to the gallery, panels of photographs show workers with horse-drawn wagons clearing woods to build houses, then the first bank and a high-rise hotel. “That was the A.C. Pheil, opened in 1924. It eventually had 11 stories,” Farias said. “Whenever he could afford it, he added another floor.”

In the next part of the timeline, visitors can see maps of trolley routes, mermaid china from the Vinoy hotel, the cornerstone from St. Petersburg High, opened in 1910. There’s the plat for the first neighborhood, Roser Park, built by the man who created Fig Newtons. And drawings showing industrial, maritime businesses on Tampa Bay. City leaders eventually scrapped those plans, and visitors can see renderings of the waterfront parks that replaced the working docks.

Several cases contain wartime memorabilia, like a 1940s-era machine gun, surrounded by photos of troops training around town. “We had 100,000 soldiers stationed here. The whole Army Air Corps came to train,” Farias said. “World War II really introduced Florida to the U.S. and made us the city we are today.”

Photographs depict some of the city's former piers.
Photographs depict some of the city's former piers. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Along the back hall, which used to be office space, there’s another new gallery: “Piering into the Past.” Visitors learn about the electric pier at Second Avenue N, where an electric trolley ran in 1905, and Tomlinson’s Pier, which included an artesian well near the east end of Third Avenue S and an arched sign: “To the Fountain of Youth.”

“It smelled awful. But people drank it and swore it made them feel better,” Farias said. “When it was tested, it was found to contain an ungodly amount of lithium.”

Everyone exits, now, through “Little Cooperstown” — the world’s largest collection of autographed baseballs, certified by Guinness World Records.

A signed photograph of Atlanta Braves baseball player Hank Aaron is on display among thousands of autographed baseballs.
A signed photograph of Atlanta Braves baseball player Hank Aaron is on display among thousands of autographed baseballs. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Dennis Schrader started collecting them in 1956, when he was a kid living in Largo. Mickey Mantle signed his first ball during spring training. “He worked at Al Lang Stadium, getting balls Yankees hit over the fence,” Farias said. Later, Schrader sought out celebrities at public appearances and asked for their autographs. “His wife always carried three balls in her purse,” said Farias.

For decades, Schrader kept the balls at his home in Odessa. But a few years ago, he donated his entire collection. There are cases of balls from women’s leagues, from Negro leagues, balls from Neil Armstrong, Muhammad Ali, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama. There are balls signed by Clint Eastwood, Chubby Checker, Evel Knievel. The most valuable, Farias said, is one signed by Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. The most surprising, he said, is one where Pete Rose wrote, “I’m sorry I bet on baseball.”

Farias had hoped to unveil the 5,000th baseball for the museum’s reopening. He had learned that Tom Hanks was coming to town and since Hanks had starred in A League of Their Own, Farias invited him to stop by the exhibit and sign a ball for the women’s league case.

Then, the coronavirus.

An old cash register at the museum.
An old cash register at the museum. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

***

IF YOU GO

The St. Petersburg Museum of History, 335 Second Ave. NE, St. Petersburg

Phone: (727) 894-1052

Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $9 to $15; children 6 and under free

Parking: Free lot beside the museum

Website: spmoh.com

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