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Treasured past may not save the historic Belleview Biltmore hotel

BELLEAIR

Admirers of the 114-year-old Belleview Biltmore see beyond the former hotel's decaying roof, peeling walls and barren floors.

Some people know the Biltmore, nicknamed the White Queen of the Gulf, because they celebrated weddings or attended meetings in the resort's grand ballrooms. The enormous wood structure is a part of their personal histories.

Others know the Biltmore because it is on the National Register of Historic Places and has played a major role in Pinellas County's history. It put the town of Belleair on the map.

All those connections to people and history may not matter now. The queen's days may be numbered. A consultant for the owners is pitching plans to raze most of the hotel to make way for up to 86 townhomes. The fate of the historic resort may rest in the hands of Belleair's leaders.

Their decisions will no doubt be influenced by residents of the upscale enclave of about 4,000, whose opinions run the gamut.

Belleair residents are known to value both history and green space. Years ago, when the Biltmore was at risk, many pushed to save it. They even adopted a historic preservation ordinance to protect it.

But the structure's rundown appearance and the sour economy seem to have shifted the tide. Some in town are ready to say goodbye. Others think there may be no alternative.

Deputy Mayor Stephen Fowler thinks many still want to see all or most of the hotel preserved. He feels the same way. But he's sensitive to those who live next to the shuttered building.

"You see the weeds coming up, the paint peeling and the ratty-looking roof," Fowler said. "You've got to feel sympathy for the residents around there."

Mayor Gary Katica thinks most folks in town are ready to say goodbye.

"I think the majority of people at this point think that it might be past the point of diminishing returns, and I don't think there will be any tremendous rejections," Katica said.

Jeff Jennings, who lives in a condo behind the Biltmore, doesn't think the hotel, even if it were restored, would ever be economically feasible because it doesn't have drawing cards like a beach or an adjacent golf course. The golf courses next door belong to the Belleair Country Club; the hotel's golf club is a mile away.

"You hate to see it go," said Jennings, 59. "Unfortunately, its time has probably come."

On the other end of the spectrum are residents like Lou White. Her late husband, Roger, was executive director of Clearwater's Morton Plant Hospital for 17 years, and she values the hotel's contributions to Pinellas' history. Among them, the hospital's founder was the son of Henry B. Plant, the railroad tycoon who built the Biltmore.

"It should not only be a Belleair concern, it should be a Pinellas County concern because it's a landmark for the county," said White, 78. With fewer protections for "historical places and our environment," White said, "we're going to be left with nothing."

Those who want to save the hotel acknowledge it may take time to find a developer with pockets deep enough to save the Biltmore. Razing the hotel and changing the zoning also could be an uphill climb, since the town code calls for preservation of historic properties.

However, a representative for the Miami investors who bought the hotel and its assets for about $8 million in December is in town pitching plans for townhomes where the Biltmore now stands. Matthew Cummings said they would sell for $450,000 to $750,000 each.

Cummings said the $100 million price tag to restore the hotel is just too much. And even if the Biltmore could be restored, he insisted, a hotel in that location could never succeed. Nevertheless, Cummings said, the Biltmore, with its beachside Cabana Club, remains for sale as a hotel property for $10 million.

In late October, Richard Heisenbottle, a Coral Gables architect who worked for the hotel's previous owner, revealed plans of his own to save the Biltmore. He argued that a hotel on the site could be successful. And he urged residents to think twice before they let the "heart and soul of Belleair" be ripped down.

Negativity about the Biltmore has struck a nerve with local historian Michael Sanders.

"For those who say it's simply a horrible location for a hotel, then why was it here for 100 years?" he asked. "They can build nice townhouses. But I think you're going to lose something important when that goes."

For decades, the Biltmore lured settlers, tourists, industrialists and celebrities, Sanders said. It was the center from which the town of Belleair grew.

A restored Biltmore could become a historic hotel for America and attract world travelers seeking a resort with history, like the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island or the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego, Sanders said.

The hotel's age and rich history led to it being placed on the National Register of Historic Places, the nation's list of resources deemed worthy of preservation, in 1979. The resort's history traces back to the late 1800s, when Plant built the Hotel Belleview. He leased the Orange Belt Railway line, which connected to St. Petersburg, hoping a luxurious resort would attract rail passengers.

The Biltmore hit a rough patch after the stock market crash of 1929. Within a few years, it went into receivership and remained there until the Kirkeby hotel chain bought it in 1939.

During World War II, 3,000 soldiers bunked there to train for duty overseas. The hotel suffered the consequences. When Bernie Powell with his sister, Nora Mae Peabody, and real estate broker Roger Stevens spent $500,000 to buy the hotel in 1946, he found crumbling wallpaper, unhinged doors and a barren kitchen. But he also saw promise.

"There is something about that hotel that has charm," Powell said in an interview six years ago. He died in 2008.

Powell re-established the Biltmore as one of Florida's grand resorts, drawing pop icons and presidents as guests. In 1990, he sold the resort for $27.5 million to Mido Development

The hotel changed hands several times after that. Off and on over the past decade, the future of the Biltmore has been in doubt. This marks the third time since 2004 that the hotel has been at risk of demolition. In 2005, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Biltmore one of America's 11 most endangered historic places.

There was hope in 2007 when Legg Mason Real Estate Investors bought the hotel and its assets for $30.3 million, with plans for a $145 million makeover. Powell died believing the hotel was safe, not knowing that Legg Mason's plans would not come to fruition.

Powell's grandson, Matthew Archangeli, said the condition of the Biltmore today is similar to its condition when his grandfather bought it.

"He had to start from scratch and that can be done again," said Archangeli, 46.

A few months ago, Archangeli took a tour of the Biltmore. He was struck by the once-opulent Biltmore's stripped walls, bare floors and empty rooms.

"You could feel the old queen suffering," Archangeli said.

He knows his grandfather would have been upset.

"I'm just glad Bernie isn't around to see it," he said.

Reach Lorri Helfand at lorri@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4155.

Biltmore time line

1895: Railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant begins construction.

Jan. 15, 1897: The resort opens as Hotel Belleview.

1919: John McEntee Bowman buys the hotel and adds the name Biltmore.

1942-44: U.S. Army Air Corps moves 3,000 servicemen into the hotel.

1946: Bernard Powell, Nora Mae Peabody and Roger Stevens buy the Biltmore.

1990: Hideo Kurosawa of Mido Development buys the hotel and names it the Belleview Mido.

1997: The Jetha Corp. buys the hotel, returns the name to the Belleview Biltmore and renovates the hotel.

2003: A company run by Pennsylvania investor Scott Urdang becomes the resort's general partner.

2007: Legg Mason Real Estate Investors buys the hotel.

December 2010: Miami investor Raphael Ades and his partners buy the Biltmore and its assets.

October 2011: A representative for the owner pitches a plan to raze most of the hotel and build 86 townhomes.

Treasured past may not save the historic Belleview Biltmore hotel 11/18/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 8:59pm]

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