A college-age man left flowers at the base of the old archaeology museum in Dania Beach on a recent morning.
He had come to the Graves Museum of Archaeology and Natural History as a kid, and he wanted to pay tribute to the iconic building with the 30-foot steel Tyrannosaurus rex on its side. The museum had lain vacant since 2004.
Miami Beach entrepreneur Arron Rimpley surprised the man by popping out of the door and inviting him in. The old museum was once again filled with fossils and other fascinations, now as the Gallery of Amazing Things.
“We didn’t realize how important the building was to people until we got here,” Rimpley said.
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Rimpley and his business partner, Gregg Whittecar, have given the 50,000-square-foot space new life. The Gallery of Amazing Things has hosted more than 50 charity events since it opened in April 2013, giving patrons a backdrop of oddities.
The collections in the museum, which range from a chaise longue built from airplane windows to a room full of Dale Chihuly glass, have also revamped Dania Beach’s flagging reputation as an antiques hub.
“It’s really put Dania Beach on the map because of the types of products that they have in the gallery,” said Luis Rimoli, co-founder of the Professional Arts and Cultural Alliance of Dania Beach. “They have certain pieces in there that no one else has.”
ROOM FOR TRANSFORMATION
The gallery, at 481 S. Federal Hwy., welcomes 20 to 200 visitors a day. That number has increased since the Wiener Museum of Decorative Arts became a temporary tenant in January.
But thousands of people have occupied the space during events ranging from United Way fundraisers to bar mitzvahs. One group even brought in a live zebra.
“Basically, what we’ve got in the back is a mini convention center,” Rimpley said.
The first floor of the gallery features World War II naval binoculars, Lladró porcelain and 50-million-year-old fossils, all for sale. But it remains largely empty so organizations can transform the space for their needs.
The Wiener Museum fills the second floor with ceramics, including the world’s largest set of Royal Doulton collectibles and a room of Chihuly’s blown glass.
It took awhile to make the building presentable, Rimpley said. When he and Whittecar took over the space in January 2012, it was in complete disarray.
“You could literally see the sky from the first floor,” Rimpley said. “That’s how bad the roof was.”
Since the Graves Museum filed for bankruptcy and sold the building, someone had stolen all the copper wiring from the space. Two inches of dust had accumulated.
“God knows what we inhaled,” Rimpley said. “I probably took five years off my life.”
The pair ordered more than $1 million in renovations to the ceilings, floors, electrical systems and air conditioning — but they made sure to keep the Tyrannosaurus rex.
Larry Williams, who specializes in dinosaur art, said he made the T. rex for the Graves Museum nearly 20 years ago.
“My worry has always been with the dinosaur [that] when people take over a building, they could just as well grind it up and throw it away or something,” said Williams, who lives in California.
The gallery owners knew they couldn’t do that to Dania Beach.
“Most people in the area, they know the dinosaur,” said Louise Irvine, executive director of the Wiener Museum. “They’re very attached. It’s become iconic.”
A BOON FOR DANIA BEACH
The gallery owners hope their $1 million purchase of the second-biggest piece of real estate in Dania Beach helps the town regain its foothold on the antiques market.
“Dania Beach used to be the antiques capital of South Florida,” Whittecar said. “As the economy changed, a lot of that went away. We’re the catalyst for bringing that back.”
Bo Donly, chairman of Dania Beach’s Creative Arts Council Advisory Board, said the gallery was a “wonderful addition” to the town.
“The arts scene is starting to really jump here in Dania, and they’re an integral part of that,” Donly said.
Rimoli, who leads a group of Dania Beach business owners who support the arts, said many of the town’s antiques stores had closed in recent years.
But he has hope that the gallery will be part of a tide change for arts and culture in Dania Beach.
“You might see some infusion of additional antiques and art stores here in the next two or three years,” Rimoli said.
In any event, the gallery has brought art lovers together in what was a bleak, blighted building, Donly said.
“That was really just a big square block of nothing, and now it’s a magnet,” he said.