Clearwater is famous for many things. Pristine beaches, delicious seafood and a bustling economy make this an exciting place to live and visit.
Fifty years ago, however, Clearwater was notorious for a giant tree and a heaping plate of sugary corn fritters.
The story starts in 1870, when businessman Robert Hoyt brought two seedlings from India and planted one across the street from his house, located in an orange grove on what is now McMullen Booth Road. The tree grew, drawing attention from curious travelers, and became a destination unto itself as people came to marvel at the giant kapok tree.
In the early 1950’s, musician-turned-restaurant-owner Richard B. Baumgartner purchased the property (and the tree), which he had spotted while vacationing in the area with his family.
Savvy Clearwater residents may recognize the name as being associated with Ruth Eckerd Hall. (It’s “official” name is the Ruth Eckerd Hall at the Richard B. Baumgardner Center for the Performing Arts. The property for REH was donated in his honor to create a performance venue by his daughter.) He envisioned a restaurant filled with delicious food and beautiful furnishings. The result was breath-taking in its excess.
Diners would stop at a ticket booth, where they would select their main course. Ham, steak or fried chicken were the favorites, although seafood offerings including fish and lobster were also popular. Anxious diners would then wait to find out where they would be seated. Rooms were lavishly decorated and unique.
The Grape Room (aptly named for the vines and clusters of grapes that draped from the ceiling), The Chandelier Room, The Palm Room – to a child it felt like the possibilities were endless and it was hard to pick a favorite. Soon, you were escorted to a table where dinners were served family style. Each table received a relish tray and a selection of breads (with apple butter) to enjoy while waiting. As dinner (or lunch) arrived, trays of potatoes and vegetables appeared, along with a towering stack of powdery corn fritters. Adults would enjoy a round of Planter’s Punch, and kids would wander through the gardens, begging to visit the gift shop.
The restaurant was a success, and drew visitors from around the world who marveled at the giant tree marking the restaurant’s location. They would return for the delicious food and inviting atmosphere that Baumgardner had carefully cultivated.
Sadly, the restaurant closed without warning in 1991. In 1993, however, it was purchased by another musician who fell in love with the property and wanted to preserve the unique facility. Much of the original architecture remains, along with the picturesque gardens that are adjacent to the building.
Today, the Kapok Tree has been renamed the Kapok Special Events Center and hosts several businesses. The north end of the facility is a Sam Ash music store. Tucked beneath sweeping ceilings and ornate columns are drum kits, electric guitars and amps – a musician’s paradise. Statues look out over keyboards and accessories, and microphones beckon the rock star to perform in the grand space.
The south end of the building houses the Kapok Special Events Center. Visitors to the facility walk through carefully sculpted gardens, along a row of gorgeous fountains. Beyond the gazebo, you enter a sweeping hallway which leads to the Grand Ballroom. Dominated by a gorgeous chandelier, the room overlooks a secret garden and towering fountain. The grand double staircase (modeled after the Titanic) leads to a balcony, which gives you a bird’s-eye view of the action below as well as a closer look at the massive chandelier. The Special Events Center is available for use as a venue for weddings, parties and corporate events.
The Kapok represents an era gone by, when going out to eat was a special treat and you would wear your “Sunday best” to dinner. For many long-time residents, the Kapok became the place to go for special celebrations. In preserving the space, another generation is given the chance to marvel at the glamorous building, and scores of visitors have arrived, decked out in their best to celebrate proms and weddings and parties under the watchful care of the silent statues.
Want to recreate the taste of the Kapok at home? The Kapok still has the original recipes from its famous restaurant and pulled these out of the archives.
2 oz. orange juice
2 oz. pineapple juice
2 oz. lime juice, sweetened
1 1/4 oz. white rum
1 1/4 oz. amber rum
1 1/4 Myers Jamaican Rum
1 tablespoon of grenadine
- Mix juices and white and amber rums and shake
- Pour into glass filled with ice.
- Add 1 tablespoon of grenadine and top off with Myer’s Jamaican rum
1 c. all purpose flour, sifted
1 ½ tsp. baking powder
1 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
¼ c. milk
½ c. whole corn
Oil for frying
SIft dry ingredients together. Add egg and milk, mixing well. Stir in corn. Heat oil to 350 degrees. Drop batter by spoonful into oil, turning once. Fry until golden brown. Remove from oil and drain. Sprinkle with powdered sugar before serving.
(Recipe from Kapok Tree archives)
If you go: 923 N. McMullen Booth Road in Clearwater.
The Special Event Center is open Tuesday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m,and Saturdays from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Call 727-725-8733 for more information on the best time to visit, as the gardens and facility are closed to the public during private events.
For more information: www.kapokspecialevents.com