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Birchwood hotel on Beach Drive blends hipness, history

ST. PETERSBURG

Nobody but the bank bid on the beleaguered Grayl's Hotel two years ago at a foreclosure auction.

Maybe the three-story inn at 340 Beach Drive NE seemed to need too much work even at a fire sale price.

Maybe no one thought the 18-room hotel could ever compete with the grand Renaissance Vinoy Resort or the modern Hampton Inn, each about a block away.

Or, most likely, no one even noticed it was on the auction block.

Well, plenty of people will soon take serious notice of the hotel when it opens this month as the Birchwood. With sweeping views of the water, a catbird seat atop Beach Drive, and a combination of history and luxury, the hotel built in 1922 will be among the swankiest stays in Tampa Bay.

Chuck Prather was playing with his kids among the banyon trees along Beach Drive when the faded hotel across the street caught his eye.

The developer who had built seven federal buildings but never run a hotel or restaurant wondered what it would take to bring the inn back.

Prather didn't bid during the auction. He called Cornerstone Bank later that day, however, and within 24 hours had a contract to buy the property.

He paid $1.8 million cash for the building and kept it open until Jan. 15, 2011. At one point he estimated he would spend $6 million on renovations.

"That would have been nice," he said with a laugh recently when reminded of his original estimated investment. Now he's declining to say how much he is spending to make the property rival boutique hotels in South Beach or New York.

Prather has named it the Birchwood, in honor of a subdivision his father developed decades ago in Tennessee.

The exterior walls were kept intact. The interior was gutted. The original facade was rebuilt with precise attention to historic details. A fourth and fifth floor were added with the modern flair of exposed metal, glass walls and sleek waterfalls. Black and white photos of early Tampa Bay don the halls, with wainscoting and original woodwork.

So was Prather aiming for historic or hip?

"It depends on where you look and how you look at it," Prather said. "It's both."

Already a magnet

Guest rooms are around 600 square feet, about 50 percent bigger than the Vinoy's average room, which is still considered ample at 400 square feet. A few guest rooms have "step-out balconies" with just enough room to ooh and aah at fireworks.

People are already calling to reserve the balcony rooms for July 4, according to Susan Robertson, director of sales and marketing.

The Birchwood isn't accepting room reservations yet, but close to 80 functions, including wedding receptions, bar mitzvahs and high school reunions, have been booked.

"The other (competing) ballrooms don't have this view," Robertson said, pointing at a bank of windows about 90 feet long overlooking Straub Park and glistening Tampa Bay.

Despite its attributes, Prather doesn't see his property having an impact on the best-known historic property in town.

"The Vinoy is the grand old lady. They have the most beautiful common spaces," he said. "We have just 18 rooms. When they are full, we hope to get some of their overflow."

Robertson cited an upcoming wedding party that booked the Birchwood for the rehearsal dinner, the Museum of Fine Arts for the reception and the Vinoy for lodging for the guests.

The Vinoy's general manager, Russ Bond, welcomes the new hotel and but also views it as competition.

"I'm sure we'll feel it," he said. "When BayWalk first opened I was a huge proponent. People looked at me like 'Why would you support something that's going to take business from us?' But it improved St. Petersburg as a destination for most of its lifespan. At the end of the day the Birchwood will make St. Petersburg a better destination."

Depending on the season, rooms at the Vinoy average $149 to $379. A night at the Hampton Inn ranges from $149 to $249. The Birchwood will charge $130 to $250.

But Prather envisions the Birchwood as four businesses. Birch & Vine, the 250-seat fine dining restaurant on the first floor, is the biggest profit center, followed by the Canopy, which has capacity of 292. Functions account for the third business and guest rooms the fourth.

The fifth-floor Canopy will offer St. Petersburg a rooftop lounge the Kardashians would envy. Tables will surround a garden with living room style seating where the beautiful people can drink, dine and gaze upon Beach Drive and Tampa Bay.

Motivations

Before it was Grayl's, it was the Lantern Lane Hotel. The history and the architecture attracted Prather.

There was no local historic designation until he applied for it. Had he not, he could have bulldozed the whole thing.

With the designation, Prather gets a city tax credit for 10 years.

Prather said it wasn't all about respecting the past and 1920s architect George Feltham.

"I don't want to be altruistic," he said, pointing out that if he had razed the building he would have lost the original footprint and had to rebuild a smaller building with tighter setbacks and parking requirements.

"And I don't want to sound all tree huggy. But I thought it was important to save an old piece of St. Petersburg.

"Is it as beautiful as the Vinoy? Of course not."

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at kssmith@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8785.

by the numbers

The Birchwood

Rooms: 18

Rates: $130 to $250

Ballroom capacity: 200 sitting, 300 standing

Rooftop cabanas with flat screens: 4

Purchase price: $1.8 million in 2011

Renovation cost: More than $6 million

Birchwood hotel on Beach Drive blends hipness, history 04/30/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 6:27pm]
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