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Tours Give Glimpse of History at the Biltmore Hotel,
a Storied Name in Miami Luxury Hotels
By Elaine De Valle, The Miami HeraldMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

July 23, 2008 - Twelve people ambled through the Everglades Room at the Biltmore Hotel on Sunday and lingered at the spot where a gangster's bodyguard was shot dead by an unknown gunman.

Only two of them were guests -- in other rooms.

The group was part of a free tour of the historic hotel led every weekend by a member of the Dade Heritage Trust. It learned how the Biltmore was built during South Florida's construction boom by George Merrick, the founder of Coral Gables. It learned about the styles of architecture used, its stint as a hurricane shelter and later a war hospital and the multiple renovations that came later.

But most went for the ghost story on the 13th floor.

"To be able to walk through the room, it's a little creepy," said Phillip St. Clair, visiting with his girlfriend from Raleigh, N.C. He also recognized the room from the Bad Boys movie starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.

He and the others were lucky last weekend; many times the tour must skip this highlight because the room is rented, said Michael Beeman, head of the docents for the Biltmore and trustee for the Heritage Trust. He came up with the tour concept and has been leading them once a month for 16 years.

"I approached Gene Prescott and told him we had to give tours," said Beeman, who is also a vice chairman of the city's historic preservation board.

Operators of the hotel welcome the tours, said Danielle Finnegan, a hotel spokeswoman.

"The Biltmore has the distinguished honor of being a national historic landmark," Finnegan said. "Weekly tours conducted by the Dade Heritage Trust are enjoyed by both hotel guests and neighbors. We estimate that over 2,000 people take part annually."

Private tour operators bring another 15,000 people from all over the U.S. and abroad each year, she said, adding that the Coral Gables Museum plans to start operating its own tour of the hotel beginning early next year.

Beeman told the group how Merrick, whose family bought 160 acres for a guava and avocado plantation in 1899, wanted to build a hotel as a beacon to his city in 1924. In the main lobby, he pointed at the Morish, Italian and Gothic style architecture in the hotel, designed by the same architects involved in the Empire State Building.

He pointed at the stencils on the ceiling, taken from buildings that date to the 13th and 14th century in Europe.

Construction began on a Friday the 13th in 1925 and the hotel opened 10 months later in January 1926. He talked about the gondolas that took visitors to Tahiti Beach, now a private beach in Cocoplum, and on fox hunts.

But the 1926 hurricane that swept through Greater Miami put the area in a recession and Coral Gables Corporation, Merrick's company, went bankrupt.

Merrick left to run a fishing camp with his wife in the Keys and the city of Coral Gables sold 18 holes of a 36-hole golf complex to a private group that became the private Riviera Country Club, he said.

The hotel was foreclosed on in October 1929 and bought and operated for $1.7 by a group of owners led by Col. William Dougherty, president of a chain of gas stations.

There were other owners, but in 1941, the hotel -- which took about $10 million to build -- was sold to the U.S. government for $870,000 and became a military hospital, Beeman said. During that time, Eleanor Roosevelt and Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower -- before he became president -- visited the injured soldiers.

In 1968, the Veterans Administration hospital moved to where it is today in Miami and the hotel sat boarded up and abandoned for years. Then the Nixon administration gave it to the city in 1973.

Beeman said the city took several years to figure out what to do with it.

In 1982, the city issued a request for proposals to find a new operator for the property, said Ellen Uguccioni, the city's first and former historic preservation director and now works for the city of Miami.

"People were proposing condominiums and mostly housing, high-rise housing," Uguccioni said.

"So it could easily have gone in another direction rather than be restored as a hotel."

Eventually, a group of 20 investors led by the Worsham brothers each pledged $1 million and borrowed $34 million to renovate the hotel, which opened again in 1987 but closed two years later, foreclosed by the bank, Beeman said.

The city searched for the next few years for someone to take it over, and in 1992, the current operators, Seaway Corporation, signed a lease with the city to run the landmark.

Beeman took the group to the Alhambra and Granada ballrooms -- where the ghost of Fats Walsch, the bodyguard for a Chicago gangster who was shot on the 13th floor -- has most often been seen walking through. And from a large balcony, he pointed out the largest commercial pool in the United States, where Johnny Weissmuller and Esther Williams once swam.

Up at the two-story Everglades Suite -- where President Bill Clinton has also stayed -- he pointed out the spot where Walsch fell.

"The shot came from upstairs," Beeman said. "Some of the red staining the limestone might be his blood, but we don't know for sure."

He said the room -- also called the Al Capone suite because the famous gangster stayed there often -- was popular with the mob because of a private elevator they used to bring whiskey and women up and showed where one bookcase had a secret exit to the staircase.

The tour hit close to home for Tamara Hallo, 35, whose grandmother was in a beauty pageant there in 1941 and whose great grandmother worked at the hotel as a maid.

"I kind of can picture her here, turning down beds," said the Country Walk resident.

"She had five children and was raising them on her own so she had several jobs."

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To see more of The Miami Herald or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.herald.com.

Copyright (c) 2008, The Miami Herald

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