For a moment, it's quiet Thursday morning inside Room 4336 — once the bridal suite at the Belleview Biltmore hotel. The carpet is gone, the floors slant beneath your feet and a mustiness hangs in the air. "I didn't realize it was this rundown," a woman remarks, tiptoeing toward the balcony. The guest rooms are gutted, their paint chipped — hardly the place where dignitaries once relaxed: Barack Obama, Babe Ruth, Margaret Thatcher and Henry Ford all among them. The hotel closed in June for what is said to be a three-year, $100 million makeover. Though an array of legal complications have delayed renovation plans, the first step in the overhaul began with a liquidation sale at 10 a.m. Thursday, bringing out the nostalgic, the curious and those just looking for a good deal.
The Biltmore lobby bustles as shoppers around the hotel peruse everything from pepper shakers (pepper included) to pillows. A couple wheels a brass Bingo number generator through the lobby, as Donald Hayes, president of National Content Liquidators, talks with shoppers nearby.
Some are business owners themselves and scrutinize the industrial equipment with tape measurers. Others have fond memories of the hotel and buy a knickknack or two.
James Partridge is last in a line of several hundred people that stretches from the hotel.
He and Bernard Struelens brunched for years at the Biltmore; Partridge won't forget the bread pudding.
When he was 18, Partridge worked as a waiter there. The hotel still holds a place in his heart. "It was just timeless."
Shoppers, all with fond memories of the resort, repeat similar stories — company parties, bridal showers, relaxed Sunday meals.
For all the national recognition, the hotel was a special part of their community.
The main dining room, where waiters like Partridge once scurried around in tuxedos, appears more like a flea market: 143 coffeemakers priced at $5 apiece line part of the wall; whiskey glasses sell for $2.
Strands of green, decorative garland — each $45 — still hang in the archways. A red, pushcart popcorn machine is $175.
Alyson Damery-Ouellette of Dunedin and Vivienne Manias of Palm Harbor browse some items near the mahogany bar, just off the main dining room. The bar itself costs $3,800; the nearby grand piano is $5,800. They admire crown molding on the walls, worry about the mold inside the walls, and say they can only hope the Biltmore will soon reopen.
"You don't want to destroy every old thing in Florida," Manias said. "We have so few as it is."
Joseph Penner, managing director of hotel owner Legg Mason Real Estate Investors, said it is still eager to restore the hotel.
But a legal challenge has delayed the construction, said Legg Mason's attorney, Thomas Reynolds of Rahdert, Steele, Bole & Reynolds in St. Petersburg.
Three residents had appealed Belleair's approval of a site plan and variances for the project. In late May, an appellate panel denied that challenge, and the time limit to file another appeal has expired.
A challenge to another Legg Mason site, though, could further delay plans for several months, Reynolds said.
The hotel owner plans to replace its Cabana Club restaurant on Sand Key with a six-floor beachfront hotel. In May, after an administrative appeal failed, a group of Sand Key residents also filed a suit appealing Clearwater's approval of the plans.
"The lack of a legal right to move forward makes it impossible for any project to obtain financing — especially in today's financial environment, where everyone has become ultra sensitive to any risk," Penner said.
But Penner said his group hopes the Sand Key case will wrap up over the next few months, and he's enthusiastic about the Biltmore project's future.
Some shoppers aren't convinced the hotel will ever reopen. Between a financial slump and the huge costs of renovation, the project could slip away, they agree.
Upstairs on the fourth floor Thursday, it's quiet near the former bridal suite. A few browsers admire the century-old handiwork. The only sounds are a few creaking, tired floorboards.
Lorri Helfand contributed reporting. Brian Spegele can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.