Monday, April 12, 2021

9/12: St. Pete's Weedon Island Preserve & Dali Museum

After visiting Ybor City and The University of Tampa Plant Museum last September, Steven and I drove over the causeway to St. Petersburg, named back in 1865 as an ideal destination for a "world health city." Well over 50 years ago, my parents took my four brothers and me to the city for a very welcome winter escape two years in a row over the Christmas holidays from frigid Ottawa. I don't remember much about those trips except enjoying the beaches but can certainly understand why St. Pete as it's often called is a year-round haven because of its warmth, sandy beaches, and 400 public parks. Steven and I chose to visit Weedon Island Preserve, a 3,190-acre preserve because its diversity of flora and fauna served as a habitat for a large variety of fish and wildlife.

For thousands of years, prehistoric people relied on Weedon Island ecosystems for everything from food and shelter to transportation. I could hardly grasp the fact that there were more than 7,000 years of human history here and that Native Americans had lived on the preserve before the Egyptians had built their pyramids.

Not surprisingly, tribes to this day still considered this to be an important ceremonial site. Tribal representatives had helped build the Visitor Center, ensuring that the entrance opened to the East to face the rising sun as that reflected an important characteristic of some indigenous structures. 

Historic people built their homes from cabbage palm trunks and fronds to thatch roofs. We learned that birds' nests are made with palm frond fibers, bats find shelter in the dried, drooping fronds, and reptiles make their homes in the frond bases. 

Between 1858 and 1963, the US Army Corps of Engineers excavated a grid of ditches for mosquito control. The ditches connected the mangrove swamp to Tampa Bay so tides could flow in and out more easily and allowing small saltwater fish to swim in and eat mosquito eggs and larvae. Peering through the swamp we could just pick out some canoeists and kayakers in the ditch below us. 

The walkway gave way to a serene body of water where we caught sight of birds near the shore.

A sign said that short-legged birds fed close to the shore whereas long-legged birds fished in deep water. 



The island was named for Dr. Leslie Weedon, the only doctor in Tampa at the turn of the century and well known for his study of yellow fever. When Weedon married Blanche Henderson, the newlyweds were given the island as a wedding gift from her father who had purchased it in 1886.


It was odd seeing the oak tree growing in a saltwater swamp! It was able to survive on a mound of dirt that had been excavated to create mosquito ditches. It was one of hundreds of mounds at the preserve that protruded high enough to prevent saltwater from reaching the roots, thereby creating artificial islands of high ground.

From atop the observation deck, we had some pretty panorama views of Riviera Bay in the foreground. In the distance was the St. Petersburg downtown skyline.




There were several small islands in the bay constructed by oysters and mangrove trees. Young oysters had settled on existing shells to build the reefs. Only when reefs were high enough could mangroves take root. Then, over a long period, the reefs could help build small islands. The bay supported oyster farms from 1912 to the 1950s until, sadly, pollution caused by the rapid growth of housing and industry prohibited the safe eating of oysters. A combination of regulation, education, and government partnerships has since helped improve water quality.

Oyster reefs provide a habitat for mangroves to take root.

This photo was taken when Tampa Bay water was clean enough for oyster farming.

I would never have guessed that every square mile of mangrove swamp was able to reduce a storm's surge by one foot. That was sufficient to make the difference between safety and destruction for coastal towns and cities during major storms. The tangled web of mangrove roots acts like shock absorbers by cushioning coastal land from both wind and wave energy. The roots also reduce coastal erosion by trapping soil.



In a corner of the preserve was Grand Central Airport which was constructed beginning in late 1929 on the recommendation of Fred Blair. The airport became very popular because of its frequent airshows and inexpensive commercial flights that flew to nearby cities and continued on to major cities along the East Coast. A tax dispute between Blair and the City of St, Petersburg began in 1936 and dragged on for several years until the city ended up foreclosing on Blair's property and shutting down the airport. 

It was reopened in 1941 as Sky Harbor Airport (now the name of Phoenix's airport BTW!) when purchased by Clarence Ludwig. The airport was leased during the war to the US government for Navy and Army pilot training. Following the war, airshows continued but the airport lost its popularity to the larger St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport. All that now remained were these remnants of the control tower.

I could see frequenting the island preserve on a regular basis if we were ever lucky enough to return to the Tampa/St. Pete area again. It was such a peaceful oasis near both cities.

These colorful murals caught my eye as we drove to The Dali (Salvador Dali Museum).


As you can see, we had timed our visit to the preserve just perfectly as the heavens opened up as we arrived at the museum!

The museum was due to the incredible largesse of Reynolds and Eleanor Morse who had the most significant private collection of Dali's work in the world that they had amassed for four decades. They donated their stellar collection to The Dali! The Morses saw their first Dali work at the Cleveland Museum of Art in March of 1942, the month they married. On their anniversary the following year, they purchased their first Dali painting from a dealer and had drinks in NYC with Dali and Gala, his wife and muse. That was the start of four decades of friendship between the couples. 

After acquiring many more paintings, the Morses made the first of many trips to the artist's home in Port Ligat in northeastern Spain as they were interested in exploring Dali's homeland and the landscapes that contributed to his psyche. The Morses became recognized authorities on Dali's art, writing several books and articles on the artist and even training The Dali's docents. In recognition of their contributions, Spain's King Juan Carlos honored the Morses with the Cross of the Order of Isabella the Catholic, the country's highest honor that could be bestowed on a non-Spanish citizen.


The museum's collection comprised more than 2,000 works, including 96 oil paintings, as well as original drawings, sculptures, prints, and manuscripts from Dali's entire career and in every medium. Dali, born in 1904 in the Catalan town of Figueres, Spain, is known worldwide for the remarkable quality of his imagination. In his early years, the artist depicted the landscape of his homeland including the coastal village of Cadaques on the Mediterranean. 



If you ever get the chance, Steven and I can't urge you enough to travel to the Teatro-Museo Dali he founded in his native Figueres. Some of the most imaginative art and sculptures I've seen anywhere in the world can only be found there. I felt like I had regained my youth, if only momentarily, when I placed a euro in a slot by an old car only to find it began to rain in the car!


The first painting purchased by the Morses was this one Dali painted in 1940: Daddy Longlegs of the Evening - Hope. I don't know that Steven and I would have had the foresight to see the brilliance of Dali's work and certainly not the money! Here are some of the painting's details! 



Dali painted this Self-Portrait when he was merely 17!

Steven and I can assure you that Cadaques, painted in 1923, was still an accurate reflection of the small fishing village that we made a point of visiting in 2019 while on an extended trip to Spain.


I wonder what psychologists might make about the relationship between Dali and his sister from Portrait of My Sister?

I don't quite know what to make of Apparatus and Hand. Do you?

In closer detail:


It appeared to me that The First Day of Spring looked decidedly bleak in Dali's estimation.

After Dali read The Interpretation of Dreams by Sigmund Freud while attending art school in 1925, he described the tome as "one of the capital discoveries of my life" and "I was seized with the real vice of self-interpretation, not only of my dreams but of everything that happened to me..." The following year Dali traveled to Paris to meet Pablo Picasso, the great Spanish modern painter of Cubist and Modernist styles. Dali would always look up to Picasso, his elder by 23 years.

Fellow Spanish artist Joan Miro introduced Dali to Surrealist Movement artists in 1929, the same year he met Gala Eluard, his subsequent wife, main model, and lifelong muse. The subject matter for Surrealists was the world of dreams and the irrational. I learned "They based their artistic  explorations on the concepts of the unconscious and the aspiration for social change after the First World War." The broad cultural movement, which lasted until 1939, included art, design, film, animation, and fashion. Dali became the most visible and controversial member of the movement and commanded attention with his provocative ideas and arresting works. After breaking with the movement in 1939, the Dalis moved to the US during the war years, only returning in 1948. 

One of the most remarkable images associated with Surrealism was his melting clock that we were lucky enough to view elsewhere. Dali was also famous for his double figures. Only on close examination were we were able to see the minuscule figures at the bottom and side of the work.

It was almost scary looking at The Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory that Dali painted in 1952.


Even if we hadn't been fans of Dali's work, the geodesic building housing the glorious paintings would have been enough to capture our attention for its 1,062 triangular-shaped glass panels wrapped around a portion of the exterior and the helical spiral staircase. I read that locals nicknamed the building The Enigma!




I loved how the museum's art was not simply limited to the interior confines of the museum's four walls but also spilled outside to take advantage of the garden-like exterior. 

Likely the world's most iconic mustache was recreated by sculptor Donald Gialanella in his work The Dali Mustache. I couldn't resist buying a face mask with Dali's signature mask on it in the museum's gift shop.

Museum visitors were invited to contribute a wish to The Dali Wish Tree following the cultural tradition popular in both Hindu and Scottish rites. What an especially opportune time during the pandemic it was to make a wish.

Another byproduct of the pandemic was the closing of the museum's labyrinth hedge.

An unusual take on Dali's melting clock!




As we exited the fabulous museum we admired the Fountain of Youth although, sadly, there was no water for us to roll back the years! How incredibly fortunate were the residents of all of central Florida to have this world-class museum on their doorstep!

After a full day exploring Ybor City aka the Cigar Capital of the World, then the stunning Plant Museum on The University of Tampa campus, and finally St. Petersburg's Weedon Island Preserve and the Dali Museum, we were treated to these incomparable sunset views back in Hudson, our Denver friends' second home. 


Next post: The Greek community of Tarpon Springs.

Posted on April 12th, 2021, on a chilly evening in Denver. I think I speak for many people here who have had enough of the white stuff by now and long for the sunny skies to return that Denver is famous for! Please take care of yourself and your loved ones as the pandemic is once again worsening in far too many places.