Consider The Possibilities

There's no reason the Belleview Biltmore has to be demolished - and now there's new hope that it won't be

click to enlarge 250 RMS, POOL VU: Can the Belleview be saved? - VALERIE TROYANO
VALERIE TROYANO
250 RMS, POOL VU: Can the Belleview be saved?

After a winding green drive through quiet Belleair and its three rolling golf courses, the immense white apparition of the hotel appears. Passing through the gates, you feel as if you've broken into one of Palm Beach's hedge-hidden compounds for the rich and famous. Spacious lawns landscaped with tropical flowers, historic palm, oak and banyan trees stand as living relics of the exotic and privileged resorts of another time. America's industrial barons and their families, Hollywood and European royalty wintered here, and Presidents Carter, Ford and Bush slept here.

The Belleview Biltmore Hotel is a sprawling white Victorian creation, with steep gables, bay windows, brick chimneys and wide verandas. Even with a wide-angle lens it is difficult to capture the entirety of the structure. The numbers are impressive: 22 acres of land, a Donald Ross-designed 18-hole golf course, 250 guest rooms, an 822,000-square-foot building with two miles of wide hallways. Yet the "world's largest occupied wooden structure" still manages to feel cozy - like a hundred clapboard cottages seamlessly connected. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Belleview Biltmore is one of the few grand hotels of its era still standing in our country.

Opened in 1897, the Belleview was one of the resorts built by Henry B. Plant along his growing railroad and steamship network. Constructed of heart of pine, the structure has baffled termites, withstood hurricanes and escaped fires for 107 years. Now the hotel is facing its biggest threat yet - a contract between owner Urdang & Associates (Honeywell, Inc. is a major shareholder) and DeBartolo Development (local mall developers). But thanks to a last-minute effort by a cadre of local activists, this threat may be vanquished, too.

Belleair, a town of only two square miles, is inextricably identified with the Belleview Biltmore. The hotel was the first house in the neighborhood, perched on the waterfront's then-untouched sandy dunes.

So it wasn't surprising that, when DeBartolo Development announced its intention to demolish the hotel last year to make way for condominiums, normally quiet Belleair residents shrieked in horror. DeBartolo withdrew the offer. Following that close call, the five-member Belleair Town Commission heard local preservationists' recommendations to pass ordinances to protect historic properties, but took no action. Last week the developers said they have the property under contract again.

Belleair Mayor George Mariani, Jr. gave this gloomy forecast to the Belleair Bee last week: "The feeling I got was the DeBartolo negotiations have worked out all the previous issues. I do not believe they were in it to save the hotel as it is."

Lorri Helfand of the St. Petersburg Times reported equally dire warnings from other officials on April 14:

"'As long as they meet the technical requirements required to be submitted to procure a demolition permit, it's an administrative entitlement and the town does not have discretion to reject it,' said Town Attorney Joel Tew… 'I don't believe our advisory board has any measures in our current code to prevent anyone from demolishing it,' said Town Manager Steve Cottrell."

The current Commission, including Mayor Mariani, won its March 2005 election after the first DeBartolo proposal was withdrawn. Local preservationists G. Michael Harris, Rae Claire Johnson and Bob Bender ran on a "Save the Biltmore" platform, and lost narrowly to Mariani's slate, whose $60,000 war chest was spent on advertising to Belleaire's 3,600 voters.

Now the losers are continuing the fight, redoubling volunteer efforts to save their town's history.

Their diligence, spearheaded by Johnson, may just save the resort. They have partnered with not-for-profit St. Petersburg Preservation, Inc. a historic preservation organization. Johnson has secured loan commitments to make an offer of $40,000,000 from financiers and developers who will build within the community's historic vision. The unnamed developers would restore the original building, take down some of the hotel's later additions, convert some existing space to hotel/condo units, and build new, historically consistent condominiums on the site.

Most urgently, they hope to stop the bulldozers. At press time, they were expected to attend a specially convened Pinellas County Commission meeting Tuesday April 19, where they planned to call for an emergency ordinance to halt demolition of the Belleview Biltmore Resort and Spa.

The Belleview's fin-de-siecle chic is slightly shabby, it's true. But its structure is sound and its design significant, including a ballroom with a Tiffany glass-paned ceiling and the original carriage porch. Daily historic tours describe the hotel's rich past, opulent appointments and ghostly encounters. A large balcony suite with water and pool view recently rented at $140 for a weeknight stay. While hardly a five-star experience, rooms are spacious, clean and comfortable, views pretty and service excellent. Like many Florida roofs, some tarp-covered peaks still await hurricane repairs from last year. Interior sprucing and larger renovations are needed, but history, charm and a beautiful setting compensate for now.

Not all developers see a compelling economic argument for destroying the historic property and replacing it with new buildings. Hamilton Jones, whose Tampa company Gaspar Properties specializes in historic preservation, does not see demolition and new development as the best economic move. "Certain developers have areas of expertise - shopping centers, condominiums, industrial buildings. They may not realize the increased values or the federal tax credits available by working within historic designations."

The Belleview Biltmore has neighbors, the Don Cesar and the Vinoy, beautiful survivors amid the condo canyons, proof that historic preservation can spur economic vitality and profits. Is a totally unique historic building, a landmark and treasure to its neighborhood, state and country, worth sacrificing for anonymous condominiums in an already overpopulated county? How dense can we get?

Make your reservations to stay at the Belleview while it stands, and golf on the hotel's Donald Ross gem of a course. Be ready to swing at the bulldozers.

Those interested in saving the Biltmore can learn more at savethebiltmore.com or by contacting [email protected].

[email protected]

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