ST. PETERSBURG — The Melting Pot was hot, but not with the beefy, dinner steam of coq a vin. The air conditioning was off in the empty building, heavy with late spring humidity.
And maybe something else? Brandy Stark held a digital thermometer above gutted tables.
“If anybody’s present, can you make the temperature drop for us? It’s 84.7. Can you drop the temperature to 84.5? 84.5. It’s dropping. Can you do it?”
The thermometer ticked down.
“Can you drop it to 84.3? Concentrate, drop your energy, please. 84.3!”
This was a major moment for Stark. She’s a paranormal investigator who founded Spirits of St. Petersburg and had eaten plenty of fondue dinners in hopes of getting close to spirits.
She had taken pictures and interviewed servers. One said he wrote his name on a large, gilded mirror, then the word DON’T appeared, with handprints. Employees heard muffled conversations, or experienced equipment breaking. In one case, a glass exploded.
But Stark needed an official investigation. She finally made inroads with Melting Pot managers when the restaurant closed for good. Then, the pandemic.
“You have to understand that I have been waiting for this,” said Stark, 45.
We all have moments we can’t explain, hence paranormal work. It’s a complicated, interpretive pseudoscience with branches in religion, culture and history. You don’t have to believe to have fun, honor curiosity and explore the past.
Still, it’s hard for even the deepest cynic to walk into the Fourth Street North building without catching vibes. Two conjoined houses form a labyrinth of dark wood, rafters, high ceilings and dramatic lighting.
From the 1930s through 1950s, it was home to artist Earl Gresh and his Earl Gresh Wood Parade. He sold gifts, art and furniture, known for his fantastic murals and wooden clutch purses. He also was an angler, speedboat racer and band leader who made records with Earl Gresh and His Gangplank Orchestra.
The building became French restaurant Rollande et Pierre, and a couple others that didn’t last long. An urban legend surrounds the place, unrelated to Gresh. It changes with the telling, as legends do, but it centers on an illicit affair and murder-suicide. Sometimes, there’s a child involved. Stark has not been able to confirm any of it through records.
This year, Mad Beach Brewing owner Matthew Powers bought the building to open a restaurant and brewery called Sesh. He’s keeping the character, including a chimney Gresh built with bricks from Fort Dade on Egmont Key. Powers has become somewhat of a Gresh collector, buying his old records and artifacts online.
When Stark connected with him on Instagram, he invited her team in. He knows the supernatural buzz will be a business draw, but he’s also genuinely interested. One day, he thought he heard voices on the other side of the building. He turned and saw a shadow. His own.
A photographer and I tagged along on the ghost hunt. Powers, 39, followed everyone through the cavernous restaurant and kitchen, noticing more things to repair at every turn.
I asked if he believes in ghosts.
“I want to,” he said.
Mention the Melting Pot to locals, and brace for, “Oh, that place is definitely haunted.” Michelle Lynch, a host at the restaurant during college summers, is one of the believers.
“It definitely was nothing but weird, creepy, mystical vibes all the time,” said Lynch, now 24.
She said the employees saw shadows in rows of romantic, two-person booths. The staff made dares: $100 if you stay after closing, turn off the lights and talk to the spirits.
“No one ever did it.”
Then, there was that big mirror. Lynch had just finished cleaning it, she said, when her parents walked back to have dinner. They pointed out fresh lip prints.
It’s important to note: Lynch and Stark have never met. Lynch had no information about the ghost hunt, and Stark had none of her stories. But the investigators, without a doubt, were drawn to the same areas.
Stark held a meter to detect electromagnetic fields, leading the team. Two called themselves empaths, sensitive to energies. The other two were tech-savvy, using devices to pick up energy, voices and movement. We turned our phones to airplane mode and remembered to cough or sneeze with intention. Anything stifled could be misconstrued. Much of the work, Stark said, is trying to prove themselves wrong.
“There’s something about that mirror,” said Marina Spears, 54, who felt headaches, neck pain and cool breezes throughout the night.
“Is this an area where we should try to contact you?” Stark said into the room.
Veva Scott set up an Xbox 360 Kinect camera, which records motion in the form of green stick figures on a screen. We waited. Times photographer Chris Urso snapped photos.
“Stop,” said Scott, 56. “Everybody stop. Right in front of Chris, there’s something really tall in the doorway. Marina, don’t move.”
Chris, a dedicated journalist, asked if he could keep taking photos, even though he might have been trapped in the hallway with a ghost. He moved out of the way, and the figure stayed on the laptop.
At one point, the empaths felt they were being chased by an impish, playful spirit. By the end, they settled on the presence of multiple entities. Stark does not believe any are Earl Gresh, because nothing happened when she pulled out one of his wooden purses or played his record.
When people describe feeling creeped out or scared by ghosts, she said, it’s not usually necessary. The goal is finding ways to live peacefully with whatever came before.
“There’s nothing evil,” she told Powers. “Nothing here wants to harm you.”
We sat in front of the giant mirror and decompressed. Earlier that night, the team had spotted a handprint on it, small and strangely high. They wiped it off.
Powers dragged his fingers across the glass surface, writing the word SESH in steam. He’d thought about getting rid of that mirror. Now, he planned on moving it up front where everyone could see.
Get Stephanie’s newsletter
For weekly bonus content and a look inside columns by Stephanie Hayes, sign up for the free Stephinitely newsletter.