This story appeared in the November 2014 issue of Naples Illustrated.
Photography by Jerry Rabinowitz
When Scott and Kathleen Kapnick returned to the United States from Europe 12 years ago, they settled in New York City. But it wouldn’t be long before the couple would feel a strong pull to make a home in Southwest Florida as well. Scott’s parents lived in Naples and his father, Harvey, had just signed on to lead a major project here—the creation of the Naples Botanical Garden. Everything changed when Harvey died of a heart attack shortly afterward in 2002. Scott and Kathleen’s attention would shift to Naples to help carry out Harvey’s vision of turning a fledgling garden into a renowned community gem.
Harvey didn’t start the garden, but he was approached by its eight founders to help take it beyond the idea stage, where it had lingered for several years. The founders needed a catalyst, and as a former chairman and chief executive officer of Arthur Andersen, the elder Kapnick had a knack for building partnerships, raising funds and thinking strategically.
His first strategy? Telling the founders that the five-acre garden they proposed wasn’t going to cut it. Although he was born in rural Michigan, Harvey had lived in large cities with expansive green spaces, and he knew that if this garden were going to succeed, it needed to be something grand. After joining the garden’s board of directors, he found a 170-acre plot south of Old Naples and purchased it with $5 million of family money in 2000.
“I think my father felt that Naples was on a path to pave [over] everything and that this was a good way to secure a great space that could be built out as a garden,” says Scott, who is chief executive officer of Highbridge Capital Management. “I think he also believed that it could be a jewel in Naples’ crown if it were done in a way that was really first class.”
After the land was purchased, an existing strip mall and parking lot were transformed into a garden experience that would give the public a taste of what was to come once the land was fully developed. But after Harvey’s sudden death, the momentum on the project slowed to a standstill.
“There was a huge void in leadership because Harvey really was the driving force behind what was going on,” says Brian Holley, the garden’s executive director. That’s why the board flew to New York to recruit Scott to assume his father’s place on the board of directors.
It was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“I knew that this garden was important to my father, that he had gotten a lot of people to support his vision and that it wasn’t going to happen if I didn’t get involved,” Scott says. “I wanted to see this garden completed.”
Right off the bat, Scott Kapnick and the board recruited Holley as director and a team of internationally renowned landscape architects to work on the garden’s design. Then in 2006, the Kapnicks donated $10 million to the garden’s capital campaign, following that with another $3 million gift. These would not be the only donations they’d make; among other things, they often match challenge grants from other donors.
Outside of Scott’s board involvement, Kathleen has volunteered countless hours and served in many integral roles, ranging from former co-chair of Hats in the Garden, the garden’s main fundraiser held each year in November, to serving on the Sustaining Leadership Council that generates interest in and donations to the organization.
The Kapnicks still marvel at how the Naples Botanical Garden has evolved from a huge tract of land into many cultivated tropical gardens, walking trails, a nature preserve, and countless educational programs. From school tours to therapeutic horticulture programs, and partnerships with conservation groups and culinary schools, the garden has shown that it is more than just a pretty face.
In October, the garden underwent a major expansion with the Eleanor and Nicholas Chabraja Visitor Center, a sustainably designed complex that includes a restaurant, expanded gift shop, seating areas and space for exhibits, art shows and lectures. Kathleen and Scott Kapnick are co-chairing the center’s opening gala, scheduled for January 8, 2015.
“We’ve achieved what we have so far mostly with private capital,” Scott says. “So this event will be a big thank you for those who have donated their time, effort and capital to helping us achieve what we have over a ten-year period. It’s rewarding for me to see all of this happen, and be involved in something that will be here for generations to come.”
Scott and Kathleen had been vacationing here with their children for many years. The couple first met as law students at the University of Chicago, married after earning their degrees, then moved to Manhattan and after that Europe, where they raised their four children. Each spring, the family visited Harvey and Mary Kapnick for a month-long vacation at their home in Naples.
“To our kids, Naples was America and our roots here go back to their babyhood,” Kathleen says. “Scott’s parents always made our visits so special. Anything they could do to entertain [the kids], they did.”
After Harvey and Mary died within two months of each other in 2002, Scott and Kathleen purchased their Port Royal home, and ultimately needed to tear it down in order to build a larger and more modern one out of Florida keystone.
Still, there are nods to Harvey throughout the Kapnicks’ home and its gardens. The couple’s living room has sunset views, because in Harvey’s old home, the family used to have cocktails in the living room as they watched the sunset. Scott’s home office has a view of the water, just as his father’s did. The Kapnicks also went to great lengths to design a breathtaking garden for their home.
Landscape architect Robert E. Truskowski designed the Kapnick home’s textured gardens that are anchored by a simple, but eye-catching combination of black mondo grass and black and silver bromeliads. Truskowski infused the black and silver scheme with unique tropical plantings, such as orchids, to give the feel of a collector’s garden at a large Caribbean estate.
Several large trees are strategically placed at focal points around the home, including a large Russian olive tree placed at the right of the entryway as an anchor. Colonnades of Royal Palms also enhance the home’s linear architecture. An orchard of lemon, lime, and grapefruit trees is nestled between the main and guest house, while a starfruit tree and mango trees are among the surroundings elsewhere on the property.
“But [Truskowski] never planted anything in a way that would hide the house,” Kathleen says. “He wanted the house to be seen and the architecture to be respected.”
Truskowski added: “You see a lot of homes in Naples that are blocked off with high walls or fences. We tried to handle that transition from the street to give back this nice garden that could be viewed from the house and passersby.”
Truskowski simultaneously worked on the Caribbean part of the Botanical Garden, on a design that includes steel drums, Bahamian chattel houses, hammocks and green spaces where children can play.
Scott thinks his father would be proud of the progress. “He would be happy, but he’d probably say it took us too long,” Scott says with a laugh. “He’d be really proud of what everyone has done to support the vision and get it done in such a wonderful way. There are some guys on this board that he recruited who would not have even been involved in this if it hadn’t been for him. So it’s very emotional for them and for us, too.”
Although they live in Naples part time, the Kapnicks have poured their heart and soul into the community as if they were full-time residents.
“We think it’s important to be involved in the community,” Kathleen says. “When we moved back to New York, we didn’t expect to lose Harvey [and his wife Mary] as soon as we did, we didn’t expect to buy their place or be on the board of the garden. But life happens, and the more you get involved in Naples, the more you want to be involved.”