By Saundra Amrhein
The late morning sun is cascading through the windows of the Craftsman House in St. Petersburg as Chris Lanitis enters to make one of his routine favorite pit stops.
Inside the restored 1918 bungalow, across its gleaming hardwood floors and under its tall ceilings, are rooms turned into galleries displaying oil paintings, metal sculptures, photography, clay pottery, jewelry and hand-made purses by acclaimed national and local artists.
Some patrons either relax outside sipping espresso on the large porch swing or eat lunch at tables in the enclosed sunroom, where multicolored blown glass “friendship balls” hang from string before the enormous windows.
The Craftsman House sits on the western edge of St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District – an eclectic arts-and-entertainment zone and one of 40 Florida Main Street Communities, offering a host of independently owned art galleries, restaurants, cafes, antique shops and bars. Pedestrian, bike, car and trolley-friendly, it rests in the heart of the Historic Kenwood residential neighborhood.
The District’s approach just west of the city center is flip flops-and-shorts-casual for visitors and regulars interested in everything from pottery and painting classes to people-watching at the St. Pete Pride parade.
“I’m a winner again!” says Lanitis, scanning his smart phone Front Flip app, revealing a discounted snack at the Craftsman House’s café, which serves everything from pure fruit smoothies to flavored espresso and coffee drinks to wraps and organic beers, microbrews and wine.
Despite moving 10 miles away from the area years before, 58-year-old Lanitis is a regular who pops in throughout the week between volunteer committee meetings for a glass of iced tea.
“I come from New England where it was more of a neighborhood and community, and that’s what the St. Petersburg Grand Central District is; you don’t find it in other places,” he says.
Every year Lanitis reserves a table for the big brunch during the annual St. Pete Pride parade, one of the biggest gay pride parades in the country.
“You get to sit in the shade with ceiling fans and champagne,” Lanitis says.
The Craftsman House has a working pottery studio in its renovated carriage house, which visitors are encouraged to check out, co-owner Jeff Schorr says, before handing over a sample of an espresso with salted caramel. As part of its friendly atmosphere as a community meeting space, at least once a month the Craftsman House also hosts nationally acclaimed musical artists for intimate concerts in the front two rooms.
The regularly running Central Avenue Trolley has been a big help bringing tourists from both downtown and the beach hotels, Schorr says. A trolley also runs between galleries during the monthly Second Saturday Gallery Walk.
In the District, regulars and visitors like watching the artistic process.
“You can see the art being made in the district,” Schorr says. Visitors can also roll up their sleeves and do it themselves.
For instance, the Grand Central Stained Glass & Graphics studio offers an array of classes. At Painting with a Twist, the whole family can get creative on canvas in classes alongside a local artist, while the adults are welcome to bring a bottle of their favorite wine.
At Painting with Fire Studio, patrons are welcome to enjoy several different workshops related to jewelry making, including a nationally-renowned torch-fired enameling process designed by Barbara Lewis, whose book on the method was named Best Craft Book of 2011 by Amazon.
Lewis’ family-run business includes classroom and studio space where finished enamel beads and pendants are on display and for sale. In the workshop room to the left, a long table lines one wall along which vents snake up to the ceiling above each chair and work space.
“Watch how fast this gets red hot,” says Jim Lewis, conducting a demonstration by dipping an iron bead that’s on the end of a thin, stainless steel rod into enamel powder and then placing it inside the torch flame shooting from a gas canister clamped to the table. He is Barbara’s husband and also the designer of the workshop’s vent system. Their daughter, Laura, helps run the business side, while son, David, helps teach the classes.
After three enamel coats and a cool down, the bead is a deep grape color and ready to be converted into jewelry.
The family was thrilled to buy the space when it became available in late 2011.
“St. Pete is a destination arts center,” Jim Lewis says.
Creative Soul Studio tempts the palate with gourmet coffees and homemade baked goods, wraps and sandwiches. The Queens Head Eurobar and Restaurant features chic outdoor cabanas, an indoor British pub and menu offering European cuisine, along with a gay-friendly atmosphere, including team trivia nights led by Trixie the Tranny.
Across the street, Nitally’s Thai-Mex Cuisine is another unique find, joining the foods and spices from the married owners’ homelands. The décor – with its mustard-yellow and purple walls, colorful art, candles, Buddha statues, and scarecrow-with-machete ahead of Halloween and Day of the Dead – blends the two cultures as much as the menu does. Appetizers include such innovative combinations like the Thai Peanut Chicken Tortilla Wraps. Fusion entrees include the Panang Mole, a red curry dish mixed with Mexican mole, coconut milk, carrots, green peas, other vegetables and sweet basil.
Whether it’s acupuncture, refurbished furniture at The Iron Pelican Antiques & Home Décor, or a rare find at Haslam’s Book Store, people of all backgrounds can find something special in the District.
“I get everything from 15-year-old kids getting into buying this old stuff to 70-year-old guys buying jazz,” says Rob Sexton, owner of Planet Retro about his vintage vinyl records and retro toys. After he moved from another store site closer to downtown to his new shop in St. Petersburg Grand Central District, he realized it was the best thing that could have happened to him.
“The vibe is so much better,” Sexton says.
When you go…
The St. Petersburg Grand Central District stretches east-west between the 1600 and 3000 blocks of Central Avenue, and includes First Avenues North and South. For more information about galleries, restaurants, live entertainment, the monthly art walk, and where to stay, visit http://grandcentraldistrict.org/.