The Floridan begins again for RNC

Inside Downtown Tampa’s newest, oldest hotel.

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click to enlarge FLORIDAN DONE: The historic hotel reopened just in time for the convention. - Shanna Gillette
Shanna Gillette
FLORIDAN DONE: The historic hotel reopened just in time for the convention.

The Hotel Floridan was a Downtown Tampa landmark from the start. The tallest building in town when it was built in 1926, the imposing hotel attracted a storied clientele, from movie stars to mobsters.

But the Floridan (pronounced “floor-uh-dan”) fell into disrepair after closing in 1987. When the Markopoulos family purchased it in 2006 for close to $6 million (the original construction cost was $1.9 million), the place was a wreck.

On his iPad, Angelo Markopoulos shows photos of the Floridan when he first saw it. The grand archways were filthy and black. The ceiling was falling apart and debris was scattered on the floor.

“I was shocked,” Markopoulos said. “It was overwhelming.”

His father, Antonios, had been in retirement just shy of a week when he decided to purchase the hotel.

“He didn’t look at it like everyone else,” Markopoulos said.

The family had long owned and developed properties on the beach, but “we’d never done something like this,” Angelo said. “We had to abide by certain guidelines for the restoration to maintain historic integrity.”

The restoration took seven years of backbreaking and costly work. Painters stood or lay on scaffolding as they reclaimed the ceiling’s luster. Terrazzo floors were buffed. Stone staircases were flipped over and polished. The cedar in the lobby bar was refurbished. Much of what had been slowly deteriorating for years was brought back to life. The original mail chute, running down 19 stories, was cleaned out and is functional once more.

“This building was more than a challenge,” Markopoulos said. “If we hadn’t bought it, then this story would have ended differently, since the other buyer wanted to tear it down.”

Now renamed the Floridan Palace, the hotel was restored just in time for the Republican National Convention happening just a few blocks away.

“We are 100 percent booked,” Markopoulos said. “I won’t say who, but there are lots of VIPs staying here.”

Much of the decorative details — drapes, pillows, wooden shutters — were fabricated on site. In one of the smaller banquet rooms, dark blue and gold-trimmed pillows are piled up near a line of sewing machines.

Some changes were made for safety reasons. For instance, the faux-marbled balustrade on the mezzanine was only knee-high, so Markopoulos’ team had to raise the bar.

“We had to install these,” Markopoulos said, pointing to waist-high brass railings. “Before these rails, one drink too many and you were done.”

The newest and oldest hotel in Tampa has 213 rooms, 15 junior suites and three penthouse suites.

“Originally there were over 400 rooms, but they were too small for today’s standards,” Markopoulos said.

The Crystal Dining Room takes its names from the Swarovski crystal chandeliers that hang from the recently redone ceiling. The dining room, which is now open to the public, serves a fine-dining menu with Mediterranean flair, reflecting the owners’ Greek-American background.

Outside, at the Cass Street entrance to the hotel, Markopoulos tears off the yellow caution tape bound around the door handles to the Sapphire Room. Nicknamed the Surefire Room, the Sapphire Room was a popular nightspot where servicemen and socialites, mobsters and celebrities would come to drink, network and find romance, long-lasting or otherwise.

“This was the spot,” Markopoulos said.

The Sapphire Room is empty now, and dark. There’s no music, no clinking glasses. It’s a little musty, seemingly unchanged since 1926. But add liquor and wait a while: The week of the convention, the Sapphire Room will open for the first time in over 20 years, with its sparkle restored, and perhaps its racy reputation (they’re serving Between the Sheets as the bar’s signature drink).

“We are adding hightops by the windows and blue lights around the room,” Markopoulos said. “And a baby grand piano in the corner so we can have jazz music in the background.”

In the Sapphire Room, Gary Cooper, Elvis Presley and mafia man Santo Trafficante were witness or party to some wild nights. The stories are already flowing in wake of the restoration, and relics from years lost are coming in. The Floridan team plans to frame all the photos and hang them throughout the hotel.

“People are bringing in old photos and telling us their stories,” Markopoulos said. “It really comes from the heart.”

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