Monthly Archives: March 2013

Floridan Palace Hotel, Tampa

The manuscript for Florida’s Best Bed & Breakfasts and Historic Hotels is now in the hands of my publisher Pineapple Press. There is still much editing and production work to do—even more than usual as this one will be both a print book and an e-book. Release is scheduled for September-October. In the meantime here is another pre-publication peek:

TampaFloridanblog2Until the twenty-two story Exchange Bank building went up in 1966, the Floridan Hotel was downtown Tampa’s tallest building—nineteen floors topped with a giant red sign that lit up the skyline at night. In fact, when it opened in 1927, the Floridan was the tallest skyscraper in all of Florida.

Allen Simms was a classic self-made man. He had left home as a teenager, to become a lumberjack in Canada. A decade later he showed up in Tampa and began acquiring and developing real estate. The 1920’s was a golden age of expansion in Florida—Tampa’s population actually doubled in that decade, and Simms rode that wave to become one of Tampa’s most prolific developers. In 1925 he planned the construction of a high-rise luxury hotel in downtown Tampa. For its design he hired prominent architect Francis J. Kennard, the same architect that Henry Plant had hired to design his 1897 Belleview Biltmore Hotel in Clearwater.

It took just one year to complete, opening on January 15, 1927. The steel framed brick-and-granite nineteen-story building’s reported construction cost was $2 million, plus an additional $1 million to furnish and decorate—an exorbitant amount for that time. But this was a lavish hotel, the tallest in the state, and in an era when prosperity seemed endless. No expense was sparred in its embellishment: crystal chandeliers, marble floors, luxurious furniture and rugs. But within three years the Florida boom would come to a resounding crash. Simms had no choice but to sell the hotel. Baron Collier’s Collier Florida Hotels company purchased it. Collier, one of the largest land owners in Florida, had the finances to weather the economic collapse, and so the Floridan survived through the 1930’s. In the 1940’s, during World War II the Floridan became a busy place again. Of particular note, the hotel’s Sapphire Room became a popular night spot for servicemen stationed at MacDill Field and Drew Airfield. They called it the “Surefire Room”.

Ownership shifted again in 1943 when a group of investors, the Florida Hotel Operating Company, bought into the Floridan. Through the years the hotel hosted celebrities and dignitaries—Gary Cooper, Lupe Velez, Clarence Darrow, Babe Ruth, Charlton Heston, even Elvis Presley stayed at the Floridan in 1955 following a concert at Tampa’s Fort Homer Hesterly Armory. But by the mid 1960’s the Floridan had lost much of its luster. Various owners from 1966-on tried to revitalize it, but none succeeded. For a few years in the early 1970’s it was a college dormitory for Patricia Stevens Career College. Mostly it was a cheap (reportedly $14 a night in the 1980’s) flop house. Each successive owner had plans to revive its grandeur but none could see it through to fruition. One bright spot came in 1996, when owner Akio Ogawa/Sity International Corporation obtained National Registry of Historic Places status for the hotel, in an attempt to cinch a sale to Grand Heritage Hotels. The Grand Heritage deal fell through at the last minute, and the hotel finally sold to Capital LLC in 1997. In 2001 the Floridan was officially condemned. Capital patched it up just enough to keep the wrecking crews at bay. Then in 2005 another buyer came along. Most thought it would probably be just another in the long succession of unsuccessful owners. But they were wrong.

Antonio Markopoulos, who moved from his native Greece in the 1950’s to Canada, and then later to the United States, owned a Days Inn hotel along with three other properties on Clearwater Beach. He had been working on a project to build a large beachfront resort there. But city approval had slowed progress and Markopoulos decided to sell his properties, for a reported $40 million. In 2005 he found a new project in the Floridan Hotel, which he bought for $6 million. This time the difference was that no financing was needed—Markopoulos could pay for the entire project out of his own pocket, and he was putting his son Angelo Markopoulos in charge of running the hotel. No one will divulge how much was spent to restore the (now-named) Floridan Palace Hotel, but speculation has been in the $20 million range, and it certainly looks like it. Swarovski chandeliers hang from the lobby ceiling—a ceiling, by the way, whose floral medallion pattern took a team of artists and craftsmen a solid year to restore. From brass fixtures, marble flooring, intricate detailed cypress woodwork, to the recreation of the Sapphire Room, to the elegant Crystal Dining Room, Markopoulos has accomplished what no one thought was possible—the rebirth of the Floridan Hotel. After the hotel’s purchase they found the original giant red electric rooftop sign stored away in one the upper rooms. It took two years to restore it, and in 2008 the sign lit up on top of the Floridan for the first time in decades. Originally the Floridan had over four hundred rooms. Back then hotel rooms were typically much smaller than they are now, so they cut the number in half and doubled the size of the rooms. Today it has one-hundred-ninety-five rooms, plus fifteen executive suites, and three penthouse suites. The meticulous restoration required a level of craftsmanship that most thought was a long lost art. The new Floridan Palace Hotel opened in 2012 and may be even more opulent than when it opened originally in 1927.
Bruce Hunt

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Artist House, Key West

Putting the final touches on my latest book Florida’s Best Bed & Breakfasts and Historic Hotels, due out from Pineapple Press this fall. Here’s a pre-publication taste:

Artist House, Key West
One of the most photographed houses in Key West is the charming Victorian Artist House, built in 1898 by Pharmacist Thomas Otto and his wife Minnie. Charming, yes, and creepy too. The gingerbread-laced wrap-around porches and third-story turret give it the appearance of a life-size doll house—and apparently it was. The Otto’s son Gene (Robert Eugene) was born here in 1900. The quite wealthy Otto family employed servants. Reportedly, one was a nanny (some references indicate she was from Jamaica, some say the Bahamas, some say she practiced voodoo) that Mrs. Otto became disgruntled with and fired. Upon the nanny’s departure she gave four-year-old Gene a gift—a doll dressed up like him, and named Robert. Young Gene became extremely attached to Robert. Reportedly he carried him everywhere and had long conversations with him. Also he would blame Robert for all manner of mischievous occurrences in the house—including tearing up his other toys. Some reports claimed poltergeist activity in the house—furniture moving, doors opening and closing on their own, as well. Gene would grow up to become an accomplished painter, studying in Chicago and living and working in Paris. After his parents died, Gene—along with his wife Anne who he had met in Paris, returned to Key West. They moved back into the house, where he turned the seven-window turret room into his artist’s studio. Gene still had Robert the doll. He propped him up in one of the turret windows, so he could look out over Eaton Street. Passersby say that sometimes Robert would move, turn his head and watch them walk by. They also said that sometimes it seemed that his facial expression would change. Gene Otto died in 1974 and Anne Otto died in 1976. Robert now resides at Key West’s Civil War Fort East Martello Museum, who had hired Gene Otto to design their gallery space.

Today Artist House is a seven-room inn that showcases its classic Queen Anne Victorian style, with twelve-foot ceilings, artfully-carved crown moldings, and etched glass transoms. The most fascinating room, of course, is the Turret Suite, with two levels. Its second-floor bedroom has a sitting area, two baths, French doors that lead onto a balcony, and a winding staircase up into the third-floor tower, with its own bed surrounded by seven windows.

It seems that Robert’s antics moved with him to the museum, but some believe the ghost of Anne Otto is still in the house.KeyWestArtistsHouse2FLK

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