We climbed through a broken window at noon. I wore rubber boots. My companion carried a machete. Hearing a splash ahead, I aimed a flashlight beam down the dark basement hall. We could see cobwebs and peeling paint and graffiti on the walls. But whatever had made the splash, man or beast, remained hidden.
Scared as children, we were in the long-closed derelict hotel, the Vinoy. Yes, that Vinoy — the luxury hotel that bedazzles on today's waterfront. Built it 1925, the Vinoy had been a winter refuge for America's rich and famous. But paying guests stopped coming and it closed in disrepair in 1973. Creeping through the basement in 1978, my companion and I felt as if we were exploring a haunted mansion — home to tormented souls, vermin and, according to rumor, at least one hungry alligator with an appetite for rodents and misplaced feet.
My machete-armed companion hadn't come to tangle with the gator. He hoped to kill mosquitoes in the flooded basement. Hatching in the rancid water, they had been flying through the broken windows and biting people downtown.
Tom Myers, who worked for Pinellas County Mosquito Control at the time, found the hatchery, a deep pool of turbid water covered by scum. He tossed a handful of poison capsules into the pool and said nervously, "Let's get out of here."
At last I felt the urge to ask about the machete.
"Walking around down here in the dark, I've bumped into homeless men standing in the doorways," he said. "Scared the hell out of me."
• • •
Not long ago I visited the Vinoy again. My companion, a tiny elegant woman named Elaine Normile, wore stylish black slacks and a leopard-skin print blouse. She wore expensive sandals instead of the rubber boots favored by mosquito killers.
The official Vinoy historian, she was leading a tour of about 20 through the hotel. As bellhops hustled past, the concierge whispered to a well-coiffed client. If a ghost lurked in the vicinity, it had to be the spirit of curly-haired Aymer Vinoy Laughner.
"He built the Vinoy," our historian said, traipsing through the lobby. And then, as is her wont, she told a story:
Laughner built the Vinoy after an encounter with famous golfer Walter Hagen. They were standing in Laughner's yard on Beach Drive when Laughner laid his expensive pocket watch on the lawn and challenged Hagen to hit a ball off the face without cracking the glass.
Hagen hit one ball after the other into the trees. Somebody present — a businessman named Gene Elliott — suggested that the 14 acres of oaks, cabbage palms and orange trees might be the perfect place to build a world-class hotel. Laughner agreed and began writing checks.
In February 1925, construction began. On Dec. 31, the Vinoy opened with Jazz Age fanfare. Though records are sketchy — a lot of history was lost during the years the hotel was closed — Hemingway and Fitzgerald most likely laid heads upon soft pillows. Babe Ruth certainly did. So did the polar explorer Richard Byrd. Calvin Coolidge was the first president to stay at the hotel.
"How did you like your supper, sir?" asked the elevator operator one evening.
"It was a little too rich for my tastes," reported the meat-and-potatoes prez.
"You're welcome to eat with us in the employees cafeteria," the elevator man said.
"And he did,'' says Normile. "He took all his meals with the hotel employees.''
The Depression hit Florida hard, but the Vinoy did fine until World War II, when even the rich felt guilty about expensive vacations. In 1942, Laughner leased his hotel to the military. Soldiers trained on city streets and sometimes slept on Spa Beach. Mostly they wrecked the hotel. When the war ended, Laughner sold it to Charles Alberding for $700,000, taking a $2.8 million loss on his investment. The Vinoy didn't recover from the war; even $7 rooms failed to entice customers. Finally it closed. One wing fell victim to the wrecker's ball. Expensive furnishings were lost, stolen or vandalized.
For a decade, big plans to reopen the hotel surfaced and then sank. In 1989, St. Petersburg residents voted to allow the leasing of underwater land in the adjacent basin for boat slips. A hotel chain liked the idea of having a marina and struck a deal. Construction and repairs began on the old hotel in 1990.
Developers installed 34,000 yards of carpet, 10,000 yards of upholstery and 17,000 yards of draperies. Its 350 rooms got 8,700 new washcloths, 6,000 towels and 6,000 pillowcases. The dining room received 66,000 pieces of silver, china and glassware. In 1992, the Stouffer Vinoy Resort reopened after a $90 million renovation.
Normile, who is 65, began leading tours in 1998. They are offered most days, cost $27 to $35, and include a meal and the possibility of spotting a celebrity. Politicians and authors stay at the Vinoy. Major League Baseball teams stay at the Vinoy. Garrison Keillor, on vacation from Lake Wobegon, was a recent visitor.
In 2005, a long-haired guest approached the concierge, Joanne Cherepon, and told her he was looking for a golf game. The guest's name was Vincent Furnier but the concierge knew him by his show business alias.
"My husband is going to play this afternoon, Mr. Furnier," the concierge said. "Do you want to play golf with him?"
The concierge called her husband, Gary.
"Do you want to play golf with Alice Cooper?" she asked.
"He did,'' Normile says. "On the way back from the golf course they stopped at McDonald's for hamburgers.''
• • •
On New Year's Eve, the hotel celebrates its 85th anniversary.
It now goes by a mouthful of a name, the Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club. But Aymer Vinoy Laughner would recognize his old place and most likely be delighted with a new-fangled invention: air-conditioning.
Nobody has to sweat anymore. Nobody needs to fret about tripping over an alligator in the basement or encountering a cockroach in the honeymoon suite. During the summer, it is possible to be bitten by a mosquito on the Vinoy veranda, but they no longer hatch from fetid pools in the Vinoy basement.
Unpleasant surprises? None, unless your checking account is overdrawn. A prime room during the winter tourist season goes for $369 per night.
Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8727.