|By Leonora LaPeter, St. Petersburg Times, Fla.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
May 13, 2005 - ST. PETERSBURG -- He revealed Thursday that he will spend $100-million building a luxury hotel and condo tower in downtown. On Saturday, he will pick up a baton and conduct the Orlando Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring.
Richard C. Kessler, a 58-year-old globe-trotting hotelier with a Savannah drawl who collects art, instruments, watches, bronzes, rare books and other fine items, represents a new kind of developer for downtown St. Petersburg.
"I love traveling to buy art. I visit 200 galleries a year, I go to Vienna (and other places) and I ship it all back to warehouses and then all these pieces go into my hotels," Kessler said Thursday after announcing he will build the latest in his series of themed hotels in St. Petersburg.
This tells you a lot about Kessler, one of the driving forces behind the successful Days Inn motel chain.
His attention to detail is absolute; his tastes are the kind only a lot of money can buy.
He wears suits lined with scenes from his life -- silk reproductions of paintings he's collected or the mountains on his ranch in Colorado. Sometimes he wears his wedding ring, and sometimes he wears rings from his ring collection. On Thursday, he wore a gold ring with a 2,500-year-old Greek coin that he got in Greece six months ago.
He lives in the Orlando-area gated community of Isleworth, where golfer Tiger Woods and basketball star Shaquille O'Neal have homes.
He says he's a millionaire, but it is clear there are many millions.
He owns 10 hotels in Orlando, Savannah, St. Augustine and Colorado, and he calls them "The Kessler Collection." They reflect his interests in music and art, as the one in St. Petersburg will.
His ancestors were among the original Salzburgers, Lutheran immigrants from Bavaria who came to Georgia in 1731.
He takes his heritage seriously and signed an agreement with Emory University in Atlanta in 1987 to amass original books and writings from the Protestant Reformation period of the 1500s. It is now the largest collection of Martin Luther's writings in the country, said M. Patrick Graham, director of the Pitts Theology library at Emory.
"I've heard many people call him a visionary because he's not satisfied with doing the same thing," said Graham. "He wants to do something unique; he wants to make a lasting contribution."
Kessler grew up in Rincon, Ga., the son of a plumber father and a homemaker mother, neither of whom went to college. He played trumpet and piano in high school and was senior class president. He attended Georgia Tech and got bachelor's and master's degrees in industrial engineering.
After he graduated, he went to work for Cecil B. Day, a family friend who was building apartments.
Three months later, Day returned from a summer vacation and showed Kessler a plan for Days Inn America, a new motel chain.
Kessler ran the company for 14 years until Day's family sold it a year after Day's death.
The chain sold for $750-million and Kessler got $50-million.
He tried his hand at other enterprises, founding a group of 10 banks, a 900-acre industrial park and a 500-acre planned unit development. By this time, he had moved to Orlando and decided to get into the boutique hotel business.
His first in 1995 was the Castle on International Drive in Orlando. His most recent was the Mansion on Forsyth Park in Savannah.
"I would have to say his tastes are a bit avant-garde in the sense that they're not exactly traditional," said John Cay, owner of an insurance brokerage firm in Savannah who met Kessler 25 years ago when they were in the Young Presidents Organization in Georgia. "He and (his wife) Martha are both sophisticated. His taste is a little on the edge. It's highly contemporary."
Kessler, who loves music as much as he loves art, always has wanted to conduct an orchestra. A few years ago, he urged the Orlando orchestra director to raise money by auctioning off a chance to conduct. Then Kessler bid on it.
He selected the music and has listened to it probably 400 times. He took conducting lessons and has practiced in the mirror. And when he walks up before the orchestra tomorrow, he will be wearing a jacket he had made for the gala opening of his Savannah hotel, the one that is lined with a painting of a scene from an opera.
Times wires and Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this story.
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