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The Clearwater Beach Hotel Closes After Nearly
 a Century of Hospitality; To Be Replaced with
 the $140-million Sandpearl Resort

By Aaron Sharockman, St. Petersburg Times, Fla.
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News

May 31, 2005 - CLEARWATER BEACH -- Richard and Roberta Pioli stood in the courtyard of the Clearwater Beach Hotel, watching the sailboats pass the bursting orange sky.

This place had been the setting of many memories. The late night parties. Dinners with family. A Christmas Eve feast.

Now, there was one more fleeting moment as the sun fell beneath the Gulf of Mexico.

The Piolis were saying goodbye. They had come with friends and brought cameras. They savored everything -- the food, the sand, the view.

After 90 years on Clearwater Beach, the hotel that shares the same name shut its doors this weekend, another casualty in the quest for things bigger and newer.

The Piolis watched the sun set from that spot one last time.

"We celebrated everything here," said Roberta Pioli, 73, a Clearwater resident who first visited the hotel as a child. "We're celebrating this, too, but this one's tougher. It's difficult to see a place that has brought so much joy to you disappear."

Built as a summer bungalow by a Florida lumberman in 1917, the Clearwater Beach Hotel was for decades the beach's top destination. John Travolta, k.d. lang and Julie Eisenhower were all guests, as were members of the rock band Jethro Tull.

But more recently, the hotel has struggled to meet the demands of today's traveler.

The wallpaper is cracking in one guest room where sand-drenched visitors have added stains to the teal carpet speckled with coral and pink dots.

The armoire is nicked, its shine long faded. Water dripping from the air conditioner has eaten away at the concrete patio over time.

Though the current building is less than 20 years old, the hotel in many ways has become functionally obsolete.

The views have not, however. Developers are banking on the sprawling white sand beaches and the radiant sun.

The $140-million Sandpearl Resort will rise higher and bigger than the Clearwater Beach Hotel ever was. With 251 resort rooms in a 100-foot building and 105 condominiums in a 150-foot tower, the Sandpearl will dwarf its six-story predecessor.

The new resort will include a spa, meeting space for as many as 1,500 guests and small store fronts. The pool will be bigger, as will the kitchen, where Clearwater Beach Hotel chef Daniel Fuchs has agreed to keep cooking, he said.

"The new hotel will be the place for someone's memories like this one was for us," said Harry Ericson, 65, a Clearwater resident.

"It will become our grandchildren's place," added his wife, Sandy Ericson.

Construction crews have mulled around the hotel for months, preparing for the work to come. The condominium sales office is already built fronting Mandalay Avenue. The new hotel, with its lobby fountain and limestone floors, is scheduled to open in 2007.

Jeff and Dan Hunter, who own the resort, said the Clearwater Beach Hotel's long history did not end Monday, when guests checked out for the final time. The tradition will continue, they think, with the Sandpearl.

Transitions have happened here before. The hotel visitors see today opened in 1988, replacing an outdated conglomeration of buildings that included part of the original turn-of-the-century bungalow built by hotel founder E.T. Roux.

"This is just part of the cycle of Florida. Build and rebuild," Dan Hunter said. The Hunters will have a minority interest in the Sandpearl.

"It's the calm sea breezes and palm trees that make this place, along with the people," he said. "The Sandpearl's going to be distinctive. It's going to be a landmark for Clearwater Beach, like this hotel was for so many years."

Bob Oppe, a regular at the hotel bar, wasn't as convinced.

Oppe enjoyed a final night mingling with friends in front of the old wooden bar Sunday night. As it was for many others, the Clearwater Beach Hotel was Oppe's hangout. He wondered whether the Sandpearl will be the same.

"I don't think regular people like us will be welcome," said Oppe, 55, who's been coming to the hotel for 15 years. "You can see the way they're advertising. It's going to be a destination, not a place to stay. It's not going to be for residents."

For one final night Sunday, the Clearwater Beach Hotel was grand again.

Guests said goodbye with a five-course dinner accentuated with truffles and caviar, highlighted by lobster tail or chateaubriand.

Waiters poured champagne into commemorative glasses.

Stray fireworks painted the sky and reflected off the seashell print china.

"It's been a home away from home," said Curt Hague, 61, who has manned the front desk for nearly 10 years. "Some of these people have been like a brother to me."

Bill and Janine Dixon married in the hotel Dec. 14, 2003.

They celebrated their first anniversary at the hotel. It won't survive for their second.

"They call it progress, but I don't agree," said Janine Dixon, 29.

During the wedding preparations, her mother, Judith, fell in love with the hotel so much that she decided to get a job there. Monday was her last day on the front desk.

Change came quickly.

In a letter to guests, general manager Neil Mayhew said he couldn't budge the 11 a.m. checkout time. Furniture movers were due on the property by noon.

John Leonard, 63, of Chicago, videotaped the last hours.

"There aren't many places like it," said Leonard, staring out toward the beach. "We're really going to miss it."

Sisters Christina and Maria Demas said goodbye for their mom, Kiki, who recently died of cancer.

"She loved the architecture; it reminded her of a cruise ship," said Christina Demas, 45.

On Monday, the Demases took pictures around the lobby chandelier as workers buzzed about.

Flashes popped through the dining room's tall windows, out onto the courtyard. There, they were met by the sun, and another day.

HISTORY OF A HOTEL:

-- 1905-1917: The original bungalow is built as a summer home by Bartow lumber dealer E.T. Roux. It was soon converted to a boarding house and hotel. (Accounts vary on when the bungalow was built.)

-- WORLD WAR I: The U.S. Army takes over the facility to house troops preparing to go to Europe.

-- 1921: Roux invites Southern College to relocate from its fire-damaged campus in Sutherland (near what is now Palm Harbor) to his hotel.

-- 1922: A second fire in as many years destroyed the classrooms and barracks on the hotel property. The following year, Southern College moved to Lakeland and was later renamed Florida Southern College.

-- 1937: A 38-room addition to the hotel is built.

-- 1955: The hotel is acquired by Ed Hunter.

-- 1982: Efforts to have the hotel listed on the National Register of Historic Places failed. A state review committee determined that the hotel had been altered too extensively over the years to merit consideration.

-- 1987: A 59-room wooden section of the hotel, including part of the original bungalow, is demolished.

-- 1988: A six-story replacement is built.

Compiled from Times files by researcher John Martin.

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To see more of the St. Petersburg Times -- including its homes, jobs, cars and other classified listings -- or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.sptimes.com.

Copyright (c) 2005, St. Petersburg Times, Fla.

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