Here's to The White Queen of the Gulf & Her Staying Power
Photos/text by Renee Burrell
Farewell sentiments as seen at the Belleview Biltmore's last Sunday Brunch
BELLEAIR - The 112 year old Belleview Biltmore Resort's closing was bitter sweet. Some of the hotel's last events were attendance record breakers--mainly a family friendly Victorian picnic hosted by Friends of the Belleview Biltmore preservationists Saturday May 30, Sunday's brunch and a fundraiser benefitting the Upper Pinellas County Retarded Citizens later that night.
Optimism was up for the largest wooden structure in the world's 100 million dollar renovation project which is expected to take several years to complete and will adhere to the United States Secretary of Interior's Standards for Rehabilitation.
The hotel, 25 Belleview Blvd, built by railroad tycoon Henry Plant in 1897 is a Pinellas County landmark that's been designated in Belleair as a "significant structure" pursuant to Section 74-332 of the town's code (A-7) and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. As such, it is subject to the Secretary of Interior's standards.
News of the latest ruling from the Sixth Judicial Circuit Court in favor of the Town of Belleair and Belleview Biltmore owner, Latitude Management Real Estate Investors, over petitioners Robert Swinehart, Scott Spencer, and Fred Thomas, was welcomed and discussed throughout the busy weekend.
Swinehart, Spencer and Thomas own homes neighboring the hotel and object to some of the renovations and the town's actions to grant them during a hearing last year.
The majority of homeowners living near the hotel are in stark contrast to the petitioners. For example, Bill and Sandy Hutton strongly support the architectural plans and the town's position in the matter. "As owners of a condo in the Belleview Biltmore Home Owners Association, we were delighted to learn the case had been decided in favor of the town. We, along with several of our neighbors, were present for the entire time at the famous Town of Belleair hearing that lasted into the wee hours of the night. We certainly saw no evidence that the opposition was treated badly or didn't have the chance to present their case. In fact, near the end of the meeting, [Belleair's] Mayor Katica specifically asked Scott Spencer whether he was comfortable with the compromise that he and the hotel had agreed upon, and he had said yes. It was such a surprise to learn that he had later joined Thomas and Swinehart in the lawsuit against the town. We believe the vast majority of residents and owners are delighted that the hotel project will continue, and look forward to having a 4 or 5 star spa right next to them. More importantly, having a property like this, and with this kind of rating, within a gated community will have a very positive effect on property values. Frankly, there has been much talk among the residents of what a shame it is that three individuals and their expensive lawyers can hold the rest of the community hostage like this. We just hope that the three plaintiffs will consider the negative impact that their lawsuit has had on our community, especially in light of the continued economic and real estate recession. The sooner the hotel renovation can start, the sooner we can all look forward to the Opening Day Celebration of this great old hotel."
Friends of the Belleview Biltmore's Rae Claire Johnson was also pleased to hear of the latest ruling in the lawsuit. "I'm extremely pleased with the ruling. I hope that the group that brought the lawsuits does not appeal because it will cost people who were expected to transition from the close down activities right into renovation efforts their jobs. These are the people who are most familiar with the hotel nuances. It will be a loss to the project if they leave for jobs elsewhere."
Diane Hein who heads up the Save the Biltmore preservationist group voiced concern over the structure's physical well being, but looks forward to its future. She said that she and vice president Ed Jameson and secretary/treasurer Doug Manning are "Overjoyed that the future of the Belleview Biltmore Hotel is secure now" and reminded that "everyone has to be aware that the hotel will be vacant and we hope that security will prevent any untoward events from occurring…We look forward to keeping abreast of the progress of the renovations over the next three years.. .We will miss the Biltmore's lovely buffets, the historic Victorian charm, the long walks through the two miles of corridors, the many gables and chimneys and especially the Christmas holiday decorations and ambiance."
Cynthia Gandee, Director of the Henry B. Plant Museum which is housed at the University of Tampa, formerly the Tampa Bay Hotel (an older sister hotel built in 1891 by Plant and also a national landmark), commented on the closing, "I think the Belleview Biltmore is THE iconic structure in the area just as the Tampa Bay Hotel is in Tampa. I know also know that restoration and conservation of the Tampa Bay Hotel has been ongoing. Had we had the money, it would have been wonderful to renovate it in one fell swoop. Few historical structures get the chance the Belleview Biltmore is getting. I so wish them success."
Gianna Russo, the museum's curator of education summed up the optimism for the Belleview nicely, "Plant was all about taking advantage of adversity (he bought up ruined Southern railroads after the Civil War to build his empire.) In that tradition, the Belleview will be transformed from its former sad state into the elegant grande dame it was meant to be. We anticipate visiting Plant's iconic 'White Queen of the Gulf.' And the Henry Plant Museum looks forward to welcoming visitors from across the bay to our door."
Until the Belleview Biltmore's reopening, a trip to Tampa and a tour of the Henry B. Plant Museum or one of their educational opportunities may be in order for Victoriana fans, history buffs and all who will miss the Belleview Biltmore during the renovation period. It's located at 401 W. Kennedy Boulevard, Tampa, FL. For more information, you can go to: www.plantmuseum.com or phone (813) 254-1891.
The Belleview Biltmore has been known for playing hostess to charity events, so it was no surprise that the last night party was for a good cause. The Upper Pinellas Adult Retarded Citizens (UPARC) held a Back to the Future fundraiser there May 31. Committee member Terry Banning of Largo (left) and Honorary Chair Diane Gobo of Palm Harbor (right) joined others in writing their names with chalk on bricks lining the Belleview Biltmore's underground tunnel during the last tour.
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