DOWNTOWN — Stories of historic preservation often have sad endings in Tampa. • In past decades, the city's Moroccan-style county courthouse, cigar factories, the Lykes building and the old Maas Brothers department store crumbled under the wrecking ball. • And the old Gary School in Ybor City was leveled last year after its roof caved in from years of neglect. • The old Floridan Hotel, though, will see a different fate. • Once under a condemnation order, the 80-year old hotel built around the same time as the Gothic Tampa Theatre is in the final stages of a painstaking restoration that started four years ago. • Wood windows, intricate wrought iron railings and chandeliers have been recreated. • Plaster detailing in the lobby ceiling has been painted, the original marble floors and front desk polished. • "It looks great," said City Council member Linda Saul-Sena, an ardent advocate for historic preservation. "The Floridan Hotel was in dreadful shape when it was acquired. The owner brought it back from the precipice of neglect."
Dennis Fernandez, the city's historic preservation manager, predicts the Floridan will earn a reputation as a jewel in Tampa after the ribbon-cutting, planned for the end of this year.
"It's going to be one of the icons of downtown again," he said. "It's going to regain its status through this work."
Owner Tony Markopoulos is one of those rare people with the energy and resources to make a difficult historic renovation possible, Fernandez said.
"I deal with a lot of individuals who come in and have a vision of where they want a historic property to be," he said. "It's always a pleasant surprise when someone's able to pull it off."
Markopoulos, who declined an interview for this story, is no stranger to old buildings. He owns a home in Greece, passed down through his family for 800 years. In the 1950s, he moved from Greece to Canada where he opened a car repair business, then switched to restaurants and nightclubs he operated in Montreal; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Washington, D.C.
In the 1980s, he moved to Florida and bought the Days Inn on Clearwater Beach, assembling five properties there with plans to build a sprawling waterfront hotel. But after facing resistance from city officials, he sold the property for $40 million.
He bought the Floridan in 2005 and began bringing it back to life, working with real estate attorney Lisa Shasteen in a building adjacent to the grand hotel.
Estimated costs to complete the project were $16 million to $18 million in 2005. Shasteen won't say what the final tab will be, offering only that it's significantly more than first estimates.
When finished, Shasteen envisions a destination for professionals, actors and musicians in town for performances at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center or Tampa Theatre. It might also accommodate University of Tampa graduation parties and guests in town for weddings at the nearby Sacred Heart Church.
And if regional rail plans evolve, business travelers could fly into Tampa International Airport, take a train to a hub within blocks of the hotel and, later, catch a train to Orlando for a jaunt to Disney World.
"Wouldn't that be nice," said Shasteen, surveying the scene from the roof of the 19-story building where the hotel's neon sign once beamed.
That sign is set to shine once again, thanks to a rewrite of the city sign code that allows rooftop signs — generally forbidden by the code — if they have historic significance.
Until 1960, the Floridan was the state's tallest building, towering over Tampa Theatre, Plant Museum, the old federal and county courthouses, and City Hall.
Canadian developer A.J Simms built it to cash in on growing travel to what was becoming the business center for Florida's west coast. It competed with the swank but stuffy Tampa Terrace Hotel, just a few blocks away.
"Ours was where you went to have fun," Shasteen said.
Its bar, the Sapphire Room, was nicknamed Sure Fire Room because it practically guaranteed a hook-up.
Famous guests included Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Elvis Presley and Charlton Heston. John F. Kennedy was to stay there immediately following the November 1963 trip to Dallas where he was assassinated, Shasteen said.
The hotel's original 426 rooms will become 213, with 195 standard rooms, 15 suites and three penthouse suites.
Shasteen and Markopoulos have recently met with surrounding property owners, encouraging them to put parking on an adjacent empty lot and retail in the historic Kress building across the street, a spot that a few years ago was approved for a condominium tower.
"We're talking things through," said Jeannette Jason, part of the group that owns the Kress. "Whether it's going to be retail or what the use is, we don't know. We don't have any plans for any new high rise development now given market conditions. Beyond that we're still talking and trying to figure out what makes sense."
Fernandez said the discussions between the Kress and Floridan owners show the impact the old hotel's revival might have on redevelopment in that segment of downtown.
"There's already been activity based on the progress he's made to date," he said. "Everyone's going to be very proud of that building. It's going to not only be a big win for him, but a big win for the citizens of Tampa."
Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3401.