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Philanthropists Tom and Mary James unveil plans for new St. Petersburg museum

John Coleman's sculpture, 1876 - Gall, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse will be in the James Museum collection. Image from Tom James
Published Jun. 17, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — Looking for spectacular? Philanthropists Tom and Mary James are bringing it to downtown with a new museum that will make a commanding architectural statement and be filled with works from their vast art collection.

Plans for the grand project came one step closer to reality Thursday when the Jameses revealed their vision and never-before-seen details to St. Petersburg's City Council. The $55 million Tom and Mary James Museum of Western and Wildlife Art will be at 100 Central Ave. Their desire, said Tom James, executive chairman of Raymond James Financial, "is to create a real arts destination in St. Pete with another high-quality museum."

The couple is using its own money for the project. They purchased the first two floors of the building for $13.5 million in 2015 and renovation of the interior is under way by the Beck Group. The opening is planned for fall 2017.

On Thursday, an important component was approved by the City Council. Members voted unanimously in favor of the Jameses' request for a 50-year lease, at $165,000 annually, for two of the six parking stories above the future museum. The council also unanimously approved an agreement with the city to provide $250,000 in streetscape improvements, signage and parking garage repairs from existing funds.

Developer Darryl LeClair, one of the Jameses' informal advisers, said such agreements "are very common. You saw them with the Dalí Museum and Sundial (a shopping and entertainment complex in St. Petersburg) for example. And look at what he's giving."

Council members echoed that last statement, with each offering glowing support for the museum and appreciation for the gift. "I'm overwhelmed by the response," Tom James said after the vote.

The building was occupied by Florida Power/Progress Energy from 1998 to 2007 and Universal Healthcare from 2008 to 2013. The parking levels are used by the city and One Progress Plaza, a nearby office building. The city will have control of one of the decks from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. and during blackout dates for events such as such as the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay Rowdies soccer games.

Tom James unveiled renderings by the St. Pete Design Group, a partnership among architect Yann Weymouth, Harvard Jolly Architecture and Wannemacher Jensen Architects, of the reimagined 133,600-square-foot building. The museum will occupy about 80,000 square feet and the remainder will be leased to businesses. An imposing sandstone sculptural element emulating the mesas of the Southwest will dominate the facade.

Inside, a two-story sculpture court will have a "gentle waterfall" cascading from the ceiling, Weymouth said. About 30,000 square feet will be devoted to galleries, the rest to a theater for about 120 people, and event space, cafe, museum store and administrative areas.

Being in the thriving downtown was a priority, and the few vacant lots there are priced more for high-profit developments. "When I looked at that building," Tom James said, "I thought of a Spanish church in the Southwest with the bell towers. Yann didn't like it."

"It's marvelous as a location," Weymouth said. "It's not an important piece of architecture. It was designed 30 years ago as a neo-Mediterranean with a mix of styles. We wanted to transform it completely."

The James collection has about 3,000 works and is valued at about $20 million. It contains classic artists such as Frederic Remington as well as contemporary ones. He also has works by contemporary Florida artists. The Jameses have used their collection to line the walls of Raymond James' corporate headquarters in the Carillon office park in St. Petersburg. They'll remain, Tom James said, and at some point, the company may buy many of them.

The museum will exhibit about 500 works in galleries on the second floor, and Tom James wants to have a special exhibitions gallery for work, not necessarily Western or wildlife, but "art that people should see, maybe by younger artists." Some of Mary James' collection of jewelry from Southwestern artists will reside in a small gallery.

Tom James, 74, has grown the company founded by his father into a financial giant and is still active, though daily responsibilities have been assumed by other executives. The Jameses are among the most generous donors in the Tampa Bay region, giving to a number of causes and organizations. In 2014, he announced a $75 million commitment to a new museum with $40 million allocated for construction, "because that's what it cost to build the Dalí," and the remainder dedicated to endowment. Construction costs have risen, so the endowment figure has dropped. He hopes donors will give to the endowment and through sponsorships. Naming opportunities inside the museum will also be offered. He expects annual operations costs at $3 million to $4 million.

Tom James said this museum has been their dream for years, but felt he needed to get it done now. "I'm in good health, but Mary said I had to do it now," he said. "I'm 11 years older than when my father died. I'm a pragmatist. I have pretty well done everything I'm going to do and don't have much of a bucket list left. This museum checks off a big one."

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