TARPON SPRINGS — It was a gift the city could just refuse.
The city was offered two 21-foot-tall Grecian-style concrete columns from the former Kapok Tree Restaurant, which most everyone thought just didn’t fit in with the Tarpon Springs style.
Mayor Costa Vatikiotis told fellow commissioners at a March 30 meeting that a man called him to say he had two statues from the former Kapok Tree, a quirky, 1,700-seat restaurant with over-the-top architectural features including a row of fountains, waterfalls and chandeliers. It closed in 1991 after 34 years in business.
Vatikiotis said the 21-foot-tall concrete columns once supported a portico at the restaurant, in the Greek ornamental style, and the man wanted to donate them to the city. The only catch was the city would have to pay to transport them from Clearwater to Tarpon Springs.
The man felt that because of its Greek influence, Tarpon Springs would be a good place for the artifacts, the mayor explained. The cost to transport the columns was initially believed to be $7,000 or $8,000.
City Manager Mark LeCouris said because of their size, the only option the city had to display them was on Safford Avenue where the olive tree circle is located, entering the Sponge Docks from Live Oak Street. “As big as these things are, it’s one of the only places they could be located,” he said.
Vatikiotis said the issue was taken to the Public Art Committee and “it was not deemed to be original art, so basically there’s not going to be any public art funds that would be used for this thing.”
A formal estimate to determine transport and setup costs totaled $48,000, the mayor said. The columns could be stored to avoid setup costs, but that would still cost about $18,000, he said.
“The question is, is this something we really need right now?” Vatikiotis said. “It’s historical, but it’s costing money. In my mind, if it was $7,000 or $8,000, that’s one thing, but anywhere from $18,000 to $48,000 is a little too much, and we can use that money for some other things we need badly.”
Tina Bucuvalas, the city's curator for the Division of Arts and Historical Resources, Cultural Center and Museum said the 21-foot statues are technically called reproduction “caryatids,” which is a sculpted female figure serving as an architectural support taking the place of a column or a pillar.
“Unfortunately, these are questionable reproductions,” she said. “We don’t know how good the reproductions are, they’re pieces of concrete that were industrially produced. They’re not original art and they also have nothing to do with local culture,” Bucuvalas said.
“But they are a truly brilliant example of Greek-American schlock, at its finest,” she noted. “Think of ‘My Big Fat Greek Wedding’ and the outside party scene, these would have been perfect.”
Paying almost $50,000 to bring them to Tarpon Springs to be put on the side of a road is “not only culturally inappropriate but an enormous waste of money that I think could be better used other places,” Bucuvalas said.
In terms of historic preservation, it is considered best practice to highlight a community’s authentic culture, she added. “To the best of my knowledge, no ancient Greeks ever lived here,” she said.
Resident Lucy Robinson, a former museum director, said the offer provides the city a great opportunity to think about the property at the north end of the Pinellas Trail.
“Please develop a vision using the key words that are already in city documents on this property — greenspace, conservation land, gateway,” she said. “The spot you’re looking at is prominent and a perfect welcome to the city … $48,000 is a good start towards developing any area that’s a truly welcoming gateway. Use that money to hire a team of experts who can truly make our gateway remarkable,” she suggested to commissioners.
Commissioner Craig Lunt said he agrees with the public sentiment that was expressed. “I got to see them at the Kapok Tree before they were dismantled,” he said. “I didn’t really care for them then. I don’t see them being any relation to Tarpon Springs at all. When I first saw them, the first thing that came to mind for their use would be artificial reefs.”
Commissioners decided to reject the offer of the gift.