Suntan Art Center, Inc is a 510(c)(3) not for profit organization located at the historic Don Vista Building in St. Pete Beach. Lying in the shadow of the Don CeSar Resort, Suntan Art Center’s mission is to bring quality recreation, education and opportunities for artistic expression to the citizens of St. Pete Beach and the surrounding area through exhibition, classes, workshops, and outdoor art fairs.
The history of the Don Vista building is forever intertwined with the infamous pink hotel to its north.
In 1924, ailing businessman Thomas J. Rowe came to Florida from Maryland and settled in St. Petersburg. He dabbled in real estate but was ultimately drawn to the beach. Rowe purchased an 80 acre strip of land encircling the Boca Ciega inlet and extending west to the Gulf for $100,000 and was instrumental in creating a bridge to serve Pass-a Grille from St Pete. He then hired architect Henry Dupont from Indianapolis as well as contractor Carlton Beard and a dream was born.
The subdivision he created is known as Don CeSar Place. In 1925 work began on the “pink castle,” called the Don CeSar, later nicknamed the Pink Lady which opened on January 16, 1928. Upon opening, Rowe lived in the penthouse while managing the hotel himself.
His former residence next door, what is now known as the Don Vista building, became the administrative offices for the hotel as well as a bank for guests of the hotel.
In 1939, Thomas Rowe passed away without a will and the building was left to Rowe’s wife. Though she attempted to keep it going, the start of World War II left the hotel virtually without guests.
The property was purchased by the Army for $450,000 in 1942 in order to be used as a military hospital as well as an airplane and submarine spotting station. In February 1944 it became an Air Force Convalescent center and the gallery portion of the Don Vista building on the east side garaged the facility’s firehouse and fire truck.
In June of 1945, the rehab facility was closed and was converted into a Regional Veterans Administration office later that year. Along with the fire truck, in what is now the Suntan Craftsmen Gallery, the building next door has at times housed the US Fish and Wildlife services for the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries lab and other Federal agencies.
In 1953, the Don CeSar fire truck was turned over to the individual towns of Don CeSar Place and Belle Vista Beach for $150 for the purpose of creating their own volunteer fire dept and generating a new name for the smaller building, the Don Vista Community Center.
The concept for the Suntan Art Center was introduced by Richard Loeb of St Pete Beach, who became its first president. He had been taking some painting classes at the recreation center and saw a need for a dedicated local art center. In April of 1963 Suntan Art Center was formed with 29 charter members at a site donated by Mr. W. W. Upham in the Upham building at 348 Corey Ave. Classes and exhibits were held there for approximately 10 months. W.W. Upham donated the use of that store room and when a permanent tenant was located, Suntan moved down the street.
In February of 1964, Suntan moved to 5501 Gulf Blvd, now the location of the Silas Dent Restaurant, in the building adjacent to the London Wax Museum. This space was made possible through the generosity of Mr. Stambaugh whose Wax Museum had just opened the previous year. When the building was sold, Suntan was in search of a new home and found one just up the street at 6999 Gulf Blvd.
During the summer of 1965, Suntan members began work on their new location which is currently the location of American Legion, Post 305. The building had previously been a fruit stand, a laundromat and, after renovations by Suntan’s 123 members using donated lumber and materials from neighboring businesses, it became Suntan’s new home. The grand opening was in October of that year and remained Suntan’s home until 1969.
In September of 1969, Suntan received its 501(C)(3) non-profit designation. It moved back to Corey Avenue, at the NE corner of Blind Pass, where it remained a genuine hub of art activity until 1981.
Approximately 30 years ago, Suntan moved to the Don Vista Community Center. In exchange for “fixing up the place” and $5 per member, to be remitted annually to the City of St Pete Beach, Suntan once again enjoyed a new place to call home. Suntan volunteers replaced the overhead door used by the fire truck with glass windows and a door, turning the fire truck’s garage into gallery space. The building was renovated by the city in 1983 – 1984.
Suntan has maintained a presence at the Don Vista ever since, with the exception of 2 years, 2003-2005, which were spent in Treasure Island during the building’s most recent renovations. Suntan returned in early 2006 with 2 shows per year in the new gallery and one Suntan teacher who taught two classes to three students. Today there are daily classes, workshops from local & visiting artists, exercise classes and seasonal programs.
The organization produces monthly art shows featuring local artists each in three different gallery spaces throughout the building.
Over the years Suntan has shared fundraising activities with other local organizations such as its first benefit fashion show with the St. Petersburg Garden Club in 1964. They held an annual Starving Artist Yard Sale that evolved into the weekend Art Mart currently held on the patio in Pass-a Grille across from the Hurricane Restaurant.
In 2011, work began on a public art project that now adorns the east façade of the Don Vista building. Using materials funded by the generous contributions of the community, Suntan members and community volunteers worked side by side to create a 22 foot glass mural depicting life at the beach. After over a year of planning, cutting and placement, the glass, mastic and grout came together. The mural was dedicated in March of 2012.
In August of 2012, Suntan was honored with the Corporate Support Award, presented by the Florida Recreation and Park Association. The award is presented annually to a Corporation, Foundation, or Business Entity which has made significant and consistent contributions to the parks, recreation and leisure services field, without concern for direct personal or corporate gain or profit through sponsorship, creation or implementation of programs which have advanced the field or opened new opportunities for such advancement, within the last one year period.
On March 16th 2013, Suntan celebrated its 50th Anniversary with a gala, “All That Art” featuring great food, music and art. In 2018, Suntan celebrated 55 years with Art Splash, an evening of art, food and dancing. The event kicked off the February 100 Artists Show on the evening of February 23rd and due to the success of the event, will be returning as an annual fundraiser for Suntan Art Center.