Grassroots Effort Needed to save the Belleview Biltmore on Florida’s Gulf Coast

[Reprinted from National Trust for Historic Preservation website, July 21, 2006]

The Owners Want to Tear it Down for Condos

BELLEAIR, FLORIDA: High-rise condos overlooking Clearwater Harbor on Florida’s Gulf coast are the type of development you would expect to see in the state. However, when a multi-million-dollar project called for destroying one of the state’s most elegant century-old hotels in Belleair, Fla., locals spoke out against another 600 condos and a new hotel.

The Stunningly Beautiful Belleview Biltmore, in Florida

The Stunningly Beautiful Belleview Biltmore, in Florida

Built in 1896 by railroad and steamboat baron Henry B. Plant, the Belleview Biltmore Hotel originally had 500 rooms and was built in three sections, each 400 feet long, with broad verandas. During World War II, the U.S. Army moved in 3,000 soldiers for two years and painted over its Tiffany stained-glass windows and brass fixtures. It has hosted Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, and to Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush.

Longtime residents were appalled that the grand hotel that once played host to presidents would be demolished. Last month, their voices were heard when the Belleair town council voted unanimously in early May to delay the demolition as leaders of a citizens group continue to negotiate the purchase of the 21-acre site with owner Belleview Biltmore Resorts, Ltd.

“We now have four commissioners all rowing the boat in the same direction,” says Rae Claire Johnson, president of Friends of the Belleview Biltmore, which is the leading the fight to save the Victorian structure.

Even with the demolition postponed for now, others warn that the fight is not yet over. “Delaying the decision on that application is not a flat-out denial,” says Belleair Town Manager Steve Cottrell. “It is deferment of a major development.”

The Exquisite Lobby at the Biltmore

The Exquisite Lobby at the Biltmore

With that in mind, the National Trust announced yesterday that the Belleview Biltmore is one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

“Everyone needs to stay involved until we have ensured that the hotel is protected by the full weight of intelligent public policies, strong local ordinances, and other legal tools such as conservation easements,” says Sam Casella, a professional planner who joined the fight to save the property. “The hotel may be given a reprieve, and the next months and years will determine whether we can make the most of it.”

Johnson would like to see the creation of a for-profit company that can take advantage of historic-tax credits for the renovation, which would include taking down two dilapidated four-story buildings with small rooms. They would be rebuilt and sold as condo hotel units so the revenue could be used to purchase and rehabilitate of the property, she says. After five years, it would be turned over to the nonprofit Friends of the Belleview Biltmore.

“We have offered the owners $40 million, and they want $50 million, so we are negotiating right now,” Johnson says. “I think they know now that I’m not just a little housewife with a cause.”

Reaching that point in this tiny town of 4,500 took some doing. Preservationists started fighting to save the thriving hotel that was once known as the “White Queen of the Gulf” last fall. After last summer’s hurricanes, more than 320,000 square feet of the roof of the four-and-a-half story hotel was covered with tarps, and the owners, Belleview Biltmore Resorts Ltd., made no effort to repair it. As Johnson sees it, the owner wanted to let the hotel deteriorate to support their claim that it had to be demolished. “I think it was their intention to run it into the ground,” she says.

A relaxing view from the porch at the Belleview Biltmore

A relaxing view from the porch at the Belleview Biltmore

Coupled with that were reports that the DeBartolo Development of Tampa had a contract to buy the property to tear down the historic property and build a smaller hotel and condominiums on 22 acres.

So this spring, Johnson and two other candidates ran against the commissioners who were up for re-election. According to Johnson, the Belleair Citizens for Truth spent $50,000 “to defeat us,” and she believes most of money came from the developer.

Even though Johnson lost the election, she didn’t back down when owners filed for a demolition permit on April 21. That’s when the National Trust for Historic Preservation was called into the fracas. National Trust President Richard Moe called the owner in an effort to negotiate a deal to save the resort, which includes a pool and golf course.

“There has been an incredible grassroots mobilization,” says Mary Ruffin Hanbury, who oversees Florida’s historic-preservation efforts from the National Trust’s Southern Office. “There’s a lot of people we have not usually heard from in Florida that were just aghast that this could happen. Our regional office has been bombarded about this issue.”

Belleview water view

Belleview water view

A hotel in excellent condition is rarely a candidate for demolition. The Belleview Biltmore’s last rehabilitation was in the 1990s, when Japan-based Mido Development spent $10 million on renovations and added a Chinese restaurant. Residents were shocked when the company installed a Pagoda-like entrance, which they nicknamed “Godzilla.” Upset by the Oriental décor, Johnson and others refuse to use that entrance. “A lot of us only go in the original front porch, which is now the rear of the hotel,” she says.

Many locals still visit the ice cream parlor or have a drink at St. Andrews Pub, and the hotel is still used for social gatherings like weddings and afternoon teas. “This is the largest wood-frame building in the state, and it still maintains a great deal of integrity,” Hanbury says. “It would be a tragedy to lose it. It’s not over until the fat lady sings.”