A last look inside the crumbling Belleview Biltmore

Despite fights to save it, the Biltmore is due to be destroyed soon.
Published May 23 2015
Updated May 24 2015

BELLEAIR — It looks like the set of a horror movie.

In the darkened rooms and corridors of the long-shuttered Belleview Biltmore, the air smells musty. The wooden floors are slanted and warped. Plaster hangs from rotting ceilings. A film of dust covers every surface.

Developer Mike Cheezem, the resort's eighth owner in the last 30 years, steps across a threshold and says, "This was the original lobby. Here's the portion of the building that we're saving."

This is what it has come to for one of Tampa Bay's most historic places.

Built in 1897 by railroad magnate Henry Plant, this iconic hotel was often billed as the largest occupied wooden structure in the world. Its guest list includes Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Bob Dylan, Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama.

Preservationists are still fighting in court to save the crumbling landmark. But time has passed it by, and the White Queen of the Gulf's date with the wrecking ball has arrived.

Closed since 2009, it's being torn down to make way for 132 condominiums and townhomes. Demolition is under way and should continue all year long as crews dismantle the enormous, 820,000-square-foot structure piece by piece, taking the time to salvage 118-year-old heart pine floors, stained glass skylights and wrought iron stairway railings.

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The demolition follows years of passionate debate between critics, who argue that the Biltmore should be saved, and neighbors in the small town of Belleair near Clearwater, who feel it's time to get rid of an eyesore.

Preservationists have searched in vain for a wealthy savior to sweep in and rescue the grand old resort. Now the Friends of the Belleview Biltmore and the Florida and National Trusts for Historic Preservation are seeking a court injunction to stop the demolition until a judge can hear their lawsuit, which challenges the demolition permit.

"Who really thinks that Florida needs more condos?" said the groups' attorney, Will Hurter. "Their strategy is to get the thing knocked down before the case gets in front of a judge."

But Belleair has agreed to let the Biltmore be razed on the grounds that saving it is unrealistic at this point. Officials heard experts' testimony that restoring the hotel would cost way too much — $200 million — and that the restored hotel would have to charge upward of $600 a night to break even.

"We all want to preserve old things, but there's a point of diminishing returns, and the hotel went past that point," said Belleair Mayor Gary Katica. "Probably 99 percent of the town now wants to see it gone. The preservationists have become obstructionists."

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How has it come to this? Pinellas County has seen its other iconic, historic hotels fall into disrepair before being revived. For example, the Renaissance Vinoy Resort in downtown St. Petersburg was vacant through the 1980s. The Don CeSar Hotel on St. Pete Beach was nearly bulldozed in the 1970s.

But according to the Biltmore's current owner, the resort has been doomed for decades, since previous owners sold off its golf course and waterfront property to pay the bills. After condos blocked its water views and access to Clearwater Bay, the Biltmore became a landlocked hotel in a gated community.

"As a practical matter, it could not live on in the form that it is now — a wooden 400-room hotel that has been struggling since the 1950s to make it, with one owner after another selling off key pieces," Cheezem said.

Unlike the Don CeSar or the Vinoy, he added, the Biltmore isn't on a beach or in a walkable downtown. "Plus, it's a wooden structure. The Vinoy and the Don are masonry structures. The degree of disrepair is just night and day."

Cheezem's company, St. Petersburg-based JMC Communities, bought the Biltmore earlier this year for $6.2 million. JMC's past projects include the Florencia and Ovation condo towers in downtown St. Petersburg, and the Sandpearl Resort and Belle Harbor condominiums on Clearwater Beach.

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As for the Biltmore's history, all that remains now is to rescue reminders of it. JMC is preserving roughly 10 percent of the hotel — the original lobby and three floors of rooms above it.

It will be remodeled into a 33-room boutique inn with an ice cream parlor, a bar, room for weddings and functions, and displays of photos and memorabilia. Like the Biltmore, the inn and surrounding condos will have white exterior walls and green gable roofs.

Even saving that much is tricky. It involves raising a four-story structure up on jacks, rotating it, hauling it the length of a football field, and plopping it back down on a new foundation. That job alone will take weeks.

"It's expensive to move it, but we felt it was critical," Cheezem said. "With the photographs and artifacts, you'll get a great sense of what the resort was like when it was functioning. That will be worthwhile."

Contact Mike Brassfield at brassfield@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.