Monday, January 22, 2018
Opinion

Daniel Ruth: Restored Floridan hotel brings back memories

It is a dreamy Saturday night at one of Tampa's grand salons once left for dead. But the Floridan Palace has risen from the ashes, the garbage, the disrepair, the bird droppings accumulated over decades of neglect to reclaim her former beauty.

And I am here to collect on a memory.

In the opulent grand ballroom the Blue Notes orchestra plays. The strains of the great bands of the 1930s and '40s — Glenn Miller, the Dorsey Brothers, Harry James — waft across the elegant air. A man dances with his wife.

A mind wanders at moments such as this. Time, too.

It is a cool Feb. 16, 1945. A tired pair of newlyweds make their way to the front desk. When they met three months earlier in West Palm Beach, he was fresh from the battlefront, having flown 50 combat missions over Europe. She had escaped the cold, overcast skies of Ohio to pursue a life behind the cosmetics counter at Burdines.

They met, as fortune would have it, in a bar. A crew member of Lt. John Ruth thought it would be amusing if he was introduced to Ruth Motz. Imagine what her name would be if they got married? Imagine.

He lied about his age, telling her he was several years beyond his 22. She, as it turned out was a year older than her beau, a fact she only learned when the clerk filling out the marriage license had to tell him to stop mumbling his date of birth.

And now here, less than 24 hours after the "I do's" they checked in at the Floridan.

Tampa is blessed with a number of iconic structures — the old Henry B. Plant Hotel, Bayshore Boulevard, throw a dart at a map of Ybor City. And there was the Floridan in the full flower of its role as the epicenter of the city's social life. Over time Jimmy Stewart, Elvis Presley, even Babe Ruth signed the registry.

And it is likely Tampa's infamous mobsters like Charlie Wall and Santo Trafficante sauntered across the lobby. You can't set foot in the new Floridan Palace and not wonder what those walls know.

In 2005, the place was a disaster. Leaks, vagrants, birds roosting. But to developer Antonios Markopoulos, perhaps he saw the ghost of Gary Cooper. "Even gold dulls if it's not polished," he said last week at the hotel's grand reopening.

The renovation is nothing short of spectacular. The grand dame of Tampa is more than ready for her closeup.

But this is more than a hotel. It is Tampa history. It is a reminder of another time, when men dressed for dinner and women knew how to wear hats. Close your eyes and you can almost see William Powell's Nick Charles caressing the perfect martini. It is home for our inner romantic.

The young couple spent several days on their honeymoon at the Floridan. Nine months and six days later my much, much, much older brother was born. The hotel's famed Sapphire Room isn't nicknamed the "Surefire Room" for nothing.

There are poetic cycles in life. In a few days, Ruth Ruth will move from Naples to Tampa, back to where her married life began so long ago.

She will turn 90 in October. There is only one place to celebrate the moment.

My father has been dead for many years, too many years. But I'd like to think that come October there will be a place for him at the table in the Crystal Dining Room.

In the Mood will be playing. A young couple very much in love will gaze at each other across the fine china. Cocktails will be served. It will be February 1945.

And he will be there with his bride once again.

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