My Weekend in St. Pete

By staff January 12, 2010

An early hello to the new Dali Museum in St. Petersburg.

By Charlie Huisking

It was too cold to display a melting watch. So instead, a huge hourglass was unveiled in St. Petersburg this week, marking the one-year countdown to the opening of a striking new home for the Dali Museum.

Dedicated to the surrealist works of Salvador Dali, the 66,000-square-foot concrete and glass structure is rising in a prime spot on the St. Petersburg waterfront, adjacent to the Mahaffey Theater. The three-story building is more than twice the size of the current Dali museum, which lies a few blocks to the south and contains the largest collection of Dali works outside of his native Spain.

The "Enigma" glass structure of the new Dali.

Museum director Hank Hine welcomed a host of St. Petersburg business, arts and governmental leaders to the ceremony on Monday. Hine said the new structure will provide the space to properly display the Dali collection, and will become a center “for the exploration of creative vision in general, a place where innovative practices in all fields can be examined.”

 Dali Museum director Hank Hine.

Mayor Bill Foster said the new museum will “change the landscape of our waterfront” and make St. Petersburg the “cultural and arts hub of the Southeast.”

The $35 million project is being funded by private donations and allocations from the federal, state and local government. Hine said $7 million must still be raised. The museum is scheduled to open on Jan. 11, 2011, with the King of Spain attending the ceremonies.

“We don’t want to have to buy the king another plane ticket, so we’re going to stay on schedule,” quipped   Mark House, managing director of the Beck Group, the construction company in charge of the cutting-edge project, which he said benefits from the latest developments in digital technology.

The building’s most eye-catching feature is a geodesic exterior bubble made up of 635 pieces of individually sized pieces of glass. Architect Yann Weymouth of Tampa’s HOK firm described it as “the enigma,” and said it was inspired by the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller, who was a good friend of Dali’s.

Museum architect Yann Weymouth.

“Dali was interested in geometry and physics and mathematics, and in the work of scientists,” said Weymouth, who worked with I.M. Pei on the expansion of the Louvre and also designed several new buildings for the Ringling Museum of Art. “Buckminster Fuller was a hero to Dali, so this feature seemed to make sense on a lot of levels.”

Hine and Weymouth, who termed the building’s style “abstract surrealism,” led a group of journalists on a morning tour of the construction site. The first floor will contain a reception center, an extensive museum store, an orientation theater, a community room and a café with indoor and outdoor seating. From there visitors can take elevators or a spiral staircase designed to resemble a strand of DNA.

The second floor will contain administrative offices and a research library, while the third floor will house the permanent collection (which numbers 2,400 pieces, including 94 oil paintings) and a wing for temporary exhibitions. Several of the most important paintings will be displayed under small skylights.

“Dali’s works were created in daylight, and when I visited his studio in Spain, I could see that it was filled with light,” Weymouth said. “These chapels of light that we’re creating will bathe the paintings in a glow; they’ll really pull you in.”

Light also plays against the glass and steel of the third-floor atrium, which narrows to resemble the prow of a ship and offers visitors spectacular views of sailboats bobbing in Tampa Bay.

Hine said the main impetus for building the new structure was the fear that the Dali works could be damaged in the present building should a major hurricane strike. The new museum has 18-inch-thick concrete walls, and is built to withstand a Category 5 storm.

The Dali museum currently welcomes about 200,000 annual visitors from around the world, including 10,000 students. Hine expects attendance to double in the new space, which will likely inspire as much conversation and debate as the controversial artist’s works do.

The innovative structure and the provocative artist are a perfect match, said Weymouth, who noted that Dali “lived large in the present, but was the artist of the future.”

By the way, my base during my exploration of the Dali’s new home was a longtime St. Petersburg landmark, the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club. Located only a 10-minute walk from the new museum, the elegant Vinoy will likely be playing host to many art-loving tourists from around the world. I love the hotel’s mix of old-world charm and contemporary luxury. My favorite activity is sitting in the wicker chairs on the hotel’s sweeping verandah and staring at the waterfront.

Right now, the Vinoy’s restaurant, Marchand’s Bar and Grill, is offering a special “classic dining” menu for $19.25. The price reflects the year the hotel opened, in the middle of the Florida land boom.

The menu for the three-course meal changes monthly, but I could choose from Coq au Vin, Braised Veal Pot Roast and Grilled Atlantic Salmon over creamed leeks. The special is available from 5:30 to 7 p.m. only. But that’s OK, because I read in The New York Times this week that in this economy, early bird dining is now trendy for all ages.





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