Connect with us

Create

Vintage Pinellas: The Kapok Tree Inn

Bill DeYoung

Published

on

The Florida Room, one of 12 separate dining areas at the Kapok Tree Inn. Today this room, renovated, is used for weddings and other ceremonies. Florida Archives.

It all began with a little tree, a sapling brought from its native India in the 1880s by orange grove owner Robert D. Hoyt, and planted in his front yard in unincorporated southeastern Clearwater, near the edge of Tampa Bay in an area known as Cooper’s Point.

Called Java Cotton, Bombax or by its genus, Ceiba, the most common name for the fast-growing soft-wood tree with bright red flowers is Kapok. The Kapok tree.

Robert Hoyt’s tree is still there, healthy and thriving and standing around 120 feet tall. Its gnarled trunk has a 20-foot circumference. The leafy branches reach out high over today’s McMullen-Booth Road.

The tree today. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

For 33 years, this tree stood sentinel at the entrance to the most popular, and financially successful, restaurant on the Gulf coast of Florida, and possibly the entire state. During its golden era, the 1960s and ‘70s, the Kapok Tree Inn served up to 1,700 guests per day.

They came to be seated in one of 12 dining rooms, each lavishly decorated with Greek and Roman statuary, ornate chandeliers and other European furniture, fixtures, tiles, paintings and ephemera, some of it faux, some very old and very real and shipped to the Kapok Tree Inn from Europe. Frescos, carvings and paneling flourishes were carefully replicated. Chiseled moldings were purchased from vintage theaters in New York. There were plants everywhere.

The Grand Ballroom. Florida Archives.

Each room was different. Your party might be seated in the Gallery Room, the Chandelier Room, the Florida Room, the Red Room, the Grape Room or the Zebra Lounge.  

The two main buildings were connected by an extensive Mediterranean garden, with more statues, topiary and elaborate, Renaissance-inspired fountains.

The Red Room. Florida Archives.

The architect of Clearwater’s Disneyland of dining was Richard Baumgardner, a Maryland saxophone player, singer and bandleader who’d cut a number of 78 RPM dance records under the name Dick “Hot Cha” Gardner. Hot Cha’s mother had turned the family home, in the town of Urbana, into a “homestyle” restaurant called the Peter Pan Inn.

After his music career ended, Baumgarder returned home and added the Hot Cha Supper Club, and when his mother died in 1945, he overhauled the entire establishment, putting in roomfuls of antiques and kitsch, creating a unique dining experience for families looking for a weekend meal and something interesting to do. The Peter Pan, with its five distinct dining rooms, was by design a “destination.”

Clearwater was a favorite winter vacation spot for Baumgardner, his wife Ethel and their three kids. At some point in the ‘50s he bought the grove once owned by Robert Hoyt and began to plan a bigger restaurant, custom-crafted, with an unusual and alluring atmosphere. The family became Floridians.

The giant flowering tree out front was already something of a tourist draw. So Baumgardner named his venture the Kapok Tree Inn.

Jan. 12, 1958

It was a hit right out of the gate. The menu was not elaborate – for years, the entrees were just ham, fried chicken, fried shrimp or T-bone steak, all served with roasted potatoes, hush-puppies, green peas and a “Lazy Susan” relish tray.

The simplicity of the offerings was not the point. Tickets for the meal of choice were purchased from a gilded booth at the entrance, inside the 300-foot, high-ceilinged “mall,” and before proceeding to their assigned dining room, visitors were encouraged to traverse the winding garden paths, like hedge and fountain mazes on the backside of an ostentatious European palace. Painters, glass blowers and other artisans worked continuously in the gardens, adding to the ambiance.                  

Benefit luncheons with fashion shows are popularly found at The Inn, and last week a group of Tampa bankers were spotted meeting there for Innish treats … give a man one of these, and he’ll be nigh too happy to notice the glamor of his surroundings.

Tampa Tribune/Sept. 20, 1961

In May 1964, Ethel Baumgardner, who was in the process of divorcing her husband, died suddenly at age 50. Less than two months later, Richard Baumgardner married Kapok Tree waitress June Eader, 22 years his junior.

In 1968, the couple opened Baumgardner’s, a formal, coat-and-tie restaurant, across McMullen-Booth Road (then known as Florida State Road 593) from the Kapok Tree Inn.

Business was booming. The company went public in 1970 and opened other Kapok Tree restaurants in Madeira Beach, Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach. By mid-decade, the Kapok Tree Inn Corporation was reporting net profits of around $1 million annually.

Richard Baumgarder died in 1976, the same year the Kapok Tree Inn was named one of the top 100 restaurants in United States by Sales and Marketing Management magazine. June donated 38 acres of land to the City of Clearwater with the provision that it be used for a performing arts venue, to be known as the Richard B. Baumgardner Center. Drugstore magnate Jack Eckerd bought naming rights for the facility, and used it to honor his wife, Ruth.

As the result of an ugly, protracted court battle between his widow and Baumgarder’s children, her majority shares were sold in 1984 to Houston businessman Murray Steinfeld.

The new owner brought in Aaron Fodiman as a partner and manager of the restaurant. Among the many changes, Fodiman upgraded the menu, and the service, and eliminated the outdated “ticket” system for ordering meals.

Baumgarder’s, the fine dining place across McMullen-Booth, became the Savoy Dinner Club. A series of gift shops were installed inside the greenhouse-like mall, just behind the titular tree.

And business picked up.

The gardens. Florida Archives.

But Steinfeld – whose endgame was to make money from the restaurant, and in time sell the real estate for enormous profit – died in 1988. And he left storm clouds roiling.

“Everything went exactly as it was supposed to,” recalls Fodiman, “except for the fact that Steinfeld was heavily involved in real estate in Texas, and he borrowed $5 million against the property from an insurance company. And when he was unable to repay the $5 million, they took the property.”

The Kapok Tree restaurants in Madeira Beach and the other Florida cities were closed and sold off. Even the sale (for $2 million) of the Savoy Dinner Club to the state, so it could be demolished for the widening of McMullen-Booth, couldn’t stem the Chapter 11 tide.

The irony, says Fodiman, who’s editor and publisher of Tampa Bay Magazine, was that the Kapok Tree Inn was operating at a profit when he was forced to close it – without any advance warning to the 300 employees, many of whom showed up for work to find the doors locked, on May 14, 1991.

Indeed, Restaurants and Institutions magazine reported, in March – just two months before the restaurant closed – that Kapok Tree business was up 12 percent in 1990.

“For me,” Fodiman explains, “it will always be my love. It was an incredible place, we did unbelievable things there, we put on great fundraisers for the community. It was a very special place.”

The Gallery Room. Florida Archives.

The following year, Kentucky Central Life Insurance Co. sold the business and land to 38-year-old Elliott Rubinson, owner of Thoroughbred Music stores in Tampa and Sarasota, for $1.3 million.

“When I saw the foreclosure sale and I saw the low bids, I figured, I’ve got to get in here and make some kind of offer,” Rubinson told the St. Petersburg Times. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

After deciding they didn’t want to be in the restaurant business, Rubinson and his wife Pam turned the main building – the mall – into a Thoroughbred store. They leased the facility to national music retailer Sam Ash in 1999.

The Sam Ash store is still there today. It is, doubtless, the most curiously decorated guitar-and-keyboard outlet in the world, as many of Hot Cha’s statues, arches and faux marble columns have been left in place.

Interior, Sam Ash Music, 2022. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

Elliott Rubinson passed away in 2017. Pam runs Kapok Special Events out of the second building, between the immaculately-manicured Renaissance gardens, where water still flows from the ornate fountains of the Baumgardner and Fodiman eras.

Similarly, the dining rooms are kept brilliant and sparkling, the imported chandeliers swaying from white ceilings, with polished mahogany pieces and exotic light fixtures in each room.

The calendar is packed with weddings, proms, parties and other social gatherings; there’s no kitchen, however.

For some, it’s a time warp, a happy reminder of an era long gone.

According to Events Director Jasmen Marley, an equal amount of visitors have never heard of the famous Kapok Tree Inn.

“Some people come in from out of town, and they remember it,” she explains. “I don’t want this place to die in the memory of just the previous visitors. I want everybody to know that this place is alive, it’s still thriving. It’s a little hidden gem in Clearwater that a lot of people just don’t know about.”

Jasmen Marley’s father was a dishwasher at the Kapok Tree Inn as a teenager. Today, she is Director of Sales & Events for Kapok Special Events. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

 

Continue Reading
23 Comments

23 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Ronnie & Kathleen Vaughn

    June 24, 2022at8:38 am

    We came down from Kentucky to honeymoon in Clearwater. The Kapok Tree was our very special honeymoon dinner! Most beautiful memory!

  2. Avatar

    deborah lariscy

    June 24, 2022at10:08 am

    As an area native I remember the Kapok. Definitely a destination for locals, too. I had a teenage birthday there and it was special. I’m a baby boomer, so that was a while ago, in the early 60’s. I was sad to learn of most of these changes. It seems that the more the property was “removed” from original owner’s influence, the more it became more of a real estate “investment”, not the restaurant biz investment. I’m happy the tree is still there. This type of tree is more known now, but back in the day it was pretty exotic. Thank You to all those involved with The Kapok, it really is in a lot of people’s memories. Thanks for this article, I will share with my family and friends in Florida. Be Well !

  3. Avatar

    Janice Taylor

    June 25, 2022at6:27 am

    It was the place for special dinners and also where you took out of town visitors. It was beautiful then, and it is beautiful now.

  4. Avatar

    Bill Bishop

    June 25, 2022at9:16 am

    While stationed at McDill Air Force Base in Tampa from 1972-1974, my wife and I and friends enjoyed the Kapok Tree Inn many times. I believe that the hush puppies mentioned in the article were actually corn fritters with powdered sugar on top. Yum.

  5. Avatar

    George Flanders

    June 25, 2022at5:43 pm

    Sounds awesome and it was so creative – I wish it would open as a restaurant again!

  6. Avatar

    Micki Smith

    June 25, 2022at6:16 pm

    My grandparents vacationed at Redington Beach for many years. One year they invited me, 12 yrs old at the time, and I was beyond thrilled. The Kapok Tree Inn was our special place that year. Although I am now 69, it will always hold one of my best memories ever! Thank you for the article!

  7. Avatar

    Anne Tiedeman Sarratt

    June 25, 2022at6:46 pm

    THANK YOU FOR SHARING THIS WONDERFUL RETROSPECTIVE ON THE MOST FAVORITE RESTAURANT OF MY CHILDHOOD! My grandparents would take us there to celebrate special occasions! The LAVISH curved ceilings & interior decor, the ‘revolving bar’, the ‘raucous’ & beautiful peacocks, the LUSH landscaping and the Majestic Kapok Tree itself were all INDELIBLY IMPRINTED on my young mind! [And the menu choices, though limited, were always a treat!]

  8. Avatar

    Scott Simmons

    June 26, 2022at4:52 pm

    Another great story Bill. Thanks for the memories.

  9. Avatar

    Jason

    June 26, 2022at6:17 pm

    I grew up in that building! I worked for Elliot at T-bred as a teenager, Sam Ash as a young adult for many years, and spent a year working for Elliot again at Kapok Special Events. I know every knoock and cranny in that giant building and have some very fond memories. I miss it very much.

  10. Avatar

    Bill Blackstock

    June 27, 2022at6:49 am

    One evening in the summer of 1969 I took a very special girl to dinner at The Kapok Tree. We were both 17 and about to enter our senior year at Dunedin High School. The food, service and atmosphere that evening were all impeccable. It was a wonderful first date, and this article took me back to that memorable evening so long ago. The Kapok Tree was an iconic establishment in Clearwater back in the day, and it is greatly missed by many.

  11. Avatar

    William Wanamaker

    June 27, 2022at7:19 am

    My aunt and uncle took us there several times. We also went to a restaurant that was like an army bunker. Sand bags for the walls, and you ate from a mess kit. I don’t know what the name of it was, but it was pretty cool.

  12. Avatar

    Alice Detari

    June 27, 2022at9:51 am

    My small wedding in 1983 was in the gazebo in the gardens beautiful ! We had our reception as dinner in the garden Florida room !

  13. Avatar

    Charles R Smith

    June 27, 2022at10:18 am

    I still have a hurricane glass, the tall type dated 1974 the year I graduated high school in mint condition

  14. Avatar

    D. J. Pritchard

    June 27, 2022at1:11 pm

    In 1970, I started working at the Kapok Tree Inn. The people there taught me how to walk in the world. At one time or another almost everyone in my family had variying jobs available at “Kapok.” Employees, locals and immagrants, raised families and took what they had learned to other businesses. There was no place better to grow up and fall in love.

  15. Avatar

    Stacie Vann

    June 27, 2022at2:39 pm

    I drive by that amazing tree every day! I have often said I wanted to check it out, especially after noticing the plaque in front of it.

    In a bit of irony (it had crossed my mind this morning) this story showed up on my newsfeed! Amazing story and a very cool tree too! So now I have all the information my inquisitive brain was desiring.

    Thank you!

  16. Avatar

    Gerald Gehrand

    June 27, 2022at2:55 pm

    In the early 70s Mr. Baumbgardner had my small business make fiberglass molds of some original archetectural pieces so he could then make the many duplicates used in the complex.
    One item was a 30 ft. tall statue from Italy that required a 30 piece mold.
    He had an onsite concrete casting operation.
    He was always professional, courteous and understanding. You never knew what challenge he would come up with.

  17. Avatar

    D Weekley

    June 27, 2022at5:33 pm

    One of the many reasons that I found Florida as my home. There were several restaurants in the St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Tampa areas that made living here wonderful! Kapok was pretty much at least a monthly visit outside of the many visits made with out of town guests.
    Then there was the 94th Aero Squadron Restaurant at St. Petersburg/Clearwater Airport . Such a fun place to go.
    The other restaurant that I remember so well was Crawdaddy’s Restaurant in Tampa.
    These three restaurants will always hold a special place in my memory as they were a true essence of great food, unusual and beautiful buildings, and a joy when dining at any of these places. I can’t think of anything that compares to these wonderful restaurants today. Nostalgia at it’s best!

  18. Avatar

    Roberta Abbott

    June 27, 2022at7:27 pm

    I remember as a little girl when relatives from up North would come down we would go to this restaurant. The kids would have their most special drink that was made up of sprite or 7Up and cherry juice.

  19. Avatar

    William Gribble

    June 28, 2022at6:33 am

    Enjoyed a Meal at the beautiful Kapok
    Tree Restaurant in Madeira Beach in
    mid-60’s with my Family.. Had a great Meal
    and the decor of the large Restaurant
    was beautiful.. The visit to Kapok Tree
    was one of a two-week Vacation in Central
    Florida… Pinellas County to Orlando area..

  20. Avatar

    Cindy Stanton

    June 30, 2022at3:59 pm

    In 1970 my now husband to to the Kapok Tree for dinner
    After we were finished eating we walked by the fountains it was there he asked me to marry him, I of course said yes. We were married 2 years later and are still married . We just celebrated our 51st anniversary.

  21. Avatar

    Shirley Hayes

    July 1, 2022at1:00 pm

    I lost my photos, but my son born in 1971, spent a lot of time at this place. We were there at least once every other month. This place was always my first choice. I really miss it. I really appreciate the photos and will save them.

  22. Avatar

    Renee Sierra

    July 1, 2022at7:28 pm

    My mom, Lora Browning, was a waitress there for years at the kapok tree. We used to go there for all the holidays to eat dinner. It was a beautiful place. One of a kind. My mother loved that job.

  23. Avatar

    Dixie Sutton Witt Ducker

    July 1, 2022at9:21 pm

    Before the kapok tree inn, i had pic made in 1950,i think. I got to go see the tree, i called it the rubber tree,my great aunt had one in Curlew. There was no building at all then. I lived about10 miles away on tampa hwy. I dont know how to post picture, i would be glad to share it though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

By posting a comment, I have read, understand and agree to the Posting Guidelines.

The St. Pete Catalyst

The Catalyst honors its name by aggregating & curating the sparks that propel the St Pete engine.  It is a modern news platform, powered by community sourced content and augmented with directed coverage.  Bring your news, your perspective and your spark to the St Pete Catalyst and take your seat at the table.

Email us: spark@stpetecatalyst.com

Subscribe for Free

Share with friend

Enter the details of the person you want to share this article with.