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Vintage Pinellas: The Kapok Tree Inn

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.

 

Bill DeYoung

Catalyst Senior Writer and Editor Bill DeYoung was a St. Petersburg Times correspondent at the age of 17. He went on to a 30-year career at newspapers in Florida and Georgia. He is the author of "Skyway: The True Story of Tampa Bay's Signature Bridge and the Man Who Brought it Down," "Phil Gernhard Record Man," "I Need to Know: The Lost Music Interviews," "Vintage St. Pete: The Golden Age of Tourism - and More" and "Vintage St. Pete Volume II: Legends, Locations, Lifestyles."

View Comments

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

  • 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 !

  • 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.

  • 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.

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