TAMPA — A nostalgic Tampa restaurant owner spent nearly $30,000 on Saturday to preserve his most cherished childhood memories by buying nearly every fiberglass figure left from the Lowry Park Zoo's old Fairyland park.
No one at the Manheim auction house expected them to cost that much. Not even the day's star, Richard Gonzmart, 63.
"You can't put a price on history," Gonzmart said after the bidding wars ended. "I wanted to save the figures and keep them together."
In total, Gonzmart spent $28,300 on 11 fairy-tale scenes from the park that dazzled children when it opened in the 1950s. The only lot he didn't buy was a group of miscellaneous figures and pieces that didn't make up a complete scene or fairy tale.
Gonzmart came to the auction house on Saturday morning with a mission. He had already pledged to buy the figures with plans to restore and display them for free. He hopes the city will let him put them along the Riverwalk once they're restored. If not, they will sit near the Riverwalk's end in the grassy areas around his restaurant, Ulele.
Gonzmart already reopened Hyde Park favorite Goody Goody last year after it closed in 2005. Fairyland was razed in 1996 and its storybook figures were left to rot in a city warehouse near MacDill Air Force Base. In the fall, the city said it would auction them off.
Most of the two dozen people at the auction house Saturday morning supported Gonzmart's plan. But two men unknown to most attendees gave Gonzmart a run, upping costs to several thousand dollars during a heated back-and-forth series of bids.
Those men bolted after the auction's end, and auction officials would not release their names.
After Gonzmart outbid the pair for the Little Boy Blue scene at $1,300, a man in the crowd called out, "You're not going to beat him today."
He was right.
Gonzmart didn't back down when Jack and the Beanstalk hit $5,000 or Cinderella's carriage scene made it to $8,000.
"Money means nothing," Gonzmart said.
Mario Núñez, host of the Tampa Natives Show on local cable television, came to the auction as spectator. He had hoped the city would give the figures to local historians eager to restore them, but stood behind Gonzmart's plan.
"This is our legacy," he said. "This is our history ... this was a magical place."
Gonzmart teared up thinking of the days he would walk the 15-acre park as a child with his grandparents, going from fairy tale to fairy tale. He said that when he looked at the figures, he could feel his grandparents still alive.
"I hope my grandkids can look back on them and think about their crazy grandfather," he said. "It was never about the money."
Contact Sara DiNatale at email@example.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.