|By MaryEllen Fillo, The Hartford Courant,
Conn.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
April 5, 2009 - BELLEAIR, Fla. -- Former Connecticut resident Henry Bradley Plant had a privileged life that included status -- his family helped settle Branford -- and an opportunity to attend Yale University.
He chucked it all in 1842 and instead, eager to launch his own business career, left for Florida, where he parlayed his business acumen into a fortune, purchasing small railroads and establishing steamship lines in the then-sparsely settled Tampa-Clearwater area.
Tenacious and visionary, the business tycoon wanted more, so to boost business on his rail lines and to attract winter visitors to the Gulf Coast, he built an elaborate 140-room Victorian hotel that today is believed to be the largest occupied wooden structure in the world, the Belleview Biltmore Resort.
Situated on Clearwater Bay in Belleair, the rambling 112-year-old resort -- which has hosted celebrities from Thomas Edison and Henry Ford to Babe Ruth and Hulk Hogan to Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama -- has dodged the wrecking ball, thanks to local preservationists.
Now, under new owner Legg Mason Real Estate, the landmark is poised for a $100 million facelift. The renovation will mean closing the place for three years starting May 31, but when it is completed, the 292-room 500,000-plus-square-foot hotel will be restored to its status as "The White Queen of the Gulf."
"Preservation of the hotel was important for a couple of reasons," said Rae Claire Johnson, president of the Friends of the Belleview Biltmore, a nonprofit group that led the charge to save the wooden icon when a development group wanted to level it and build condos. "Economically, Belleair needs the hotel to generate some revenue. But more than that, architecturally, you could never reproduce this building. It would be a shame to lose it."
The main resort building (a golf course and smaller beachfront hotel also are part of the property) is a monument to period architecture, fine craftsmanship and the charm of days gone by, with its wraparound covered porches and filigree railings, hand-carved moldings and pediments, Tiffany-style glass, brass chandeliers and rich hardwood floors.
Noted architect Richard Heisenbottle will oversee the project; he was selected because of his experience in restoring historic properties.
With just weeks left before the resort closes, preparations are underway to begin cataloging such components as molding, flooring, mantles, mirrors and glass that will be removed and reinstalled, , while faithful guests and the curious make final reservations before May 31.
Built in a time when guests would arrive in private railroad cars, the hotel reflects the way of life the wealthy enjoyed. A complicated maze of basement hallways kept the staff out of sight as they moved luggage from the rail cars to guests' rooms. Concealed staircases allowed nannies with young charges and hotel staffers to move from floor to floor without crossing paths with adult guests. A trap door behind one of the bars allowed staffers to quietly make their way to basement supply closets to fetch fresh bottles of spirits for the privileged guests.
Today, guests certainly will cross paths with an accommodating staff, but they can experience firsthand the opulence for which the resort was best known, including:
-- A ballroom boasting a ceiling of Tiffany-style lead glass panels.
-- A spa -- which will be replaced, with one housed in a separate building pending the outcome of a zoning lawsuit later this month -- that features a hand-tiled indoor pool surrounded by elegant with coral columns.
-- Miles of wide, carpeted hallways designed so two women in bustled gowns could pass each other; intricately carved fireplaces with dentil moldings and oversize original mirrors; embellished chimneys; irregular roof lines with gables and peaks -- all of which make the place an intriguing lesson in architecture.
Then there is the history lesson. A wealth of historic pictures of the hotel, its guests and the Plant family, guest registers, news clippings, an old-time movie projector, samples of original china, menus, vintage military uniforms and other memorabilia are displayed in the hotel "museum" and in the common areas.
"I have lived in Clearwater for nearly 15 years and never really took the time to look at everything until the word was out that the place was closing for a few years," said Darren Watkins, who was among a group of 20 people on a recent guided tour of the hotel.
"The opulence, the way life was lived back then -- it is intriguing," he said. "Imagine coming down here in your own rail car with servants, kids, luggage, and then spending the entire summer being waited on and coddled."
A daily tour offers an array of vignettes. Babe Ruth was a regular guest because he could walk to a nearby gambling parlor. The U.S. Army Air Corps leased the building during World War II, turning it into a barracks for 3,000 military personnel, painting some of the Tiffany glass windows black and brass chandeliers fatigue green, and installing a then-state-of-the-art fire-extinguishing system that is still being used today.
Then there are the tales. When Plant's son, Morton Freeman Plant, took over the resort, his wife, Maisie (an old-fashioned ice cream parlor in the hotel bears her name), wanted a $1.32 million Cartier double-strand string of cultured pearls. When Morton wouldn't buy them because he thought they were too expensive, she traded property they owned on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan for the pearls. Cartier's is still in the New York City building, but no one knows what happened to Maisie's string of pearls.
Children's television host Fred Rogers, who lived nearby when he was growing up, fine-tuned his exemplary swimming skills in the hotel pool.
And what's a big old hotel without ghost stories? Once a week there is a ghost tour into unoccupied areas of the hotel, where guests swear they hear children running up and down the hallways or see visions of a jilted bride roaming about.
Likening the resort to a Victorian teapot in need of a new handle and spout, hotel manager Martin Smith is anxious about preserving not only the building but some of the landscaping -- including a huge cork tree with branches that form a heart (the most popular place for outdoor weddings there) -- and correcting missteps by previous owners.
Among those missteps, he said, was the addition of an Asian-inspired pagoda-like main entrance and an outdoor waterfall and swimming pool structure that looks a bit like a water-treatment plant.
Smith is looking forward to one particular change: the construction of an underground parking garage that will do away with unsightly asphalt parking lots. He said that will help put the hotel in the spotlight and make it not only a luxury resort for vacationers but a conference destination as well.
"We don't want to compete with brass and glass boxes," said Martin. "We want to preserve it and make it a viable business as well."
"We can't wait for the restoration to begin," said Sharon Delahanty, a longtime employee and Martin's assistant, who has watched the hotel deteriorate over the years. "The excitement is that they came so close to tearing her down. She may have some idiosyncrasies, and you either love her or you don't. But we love her."
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