Monday, May 28, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: It's time the Biltmore had a merciful death

There's a simple solution to this contentious dispute.

The potentates of Belleair should simply throw open the gates and allow any resident to go on a guided tour of the bedraggled and dilapidated and crumbling former queen of the Gulf of Mexico, the now forlorn Belleview Biltmore Hotel.

They will be able to luxuriate in the growing mold. They will be able to go on a thrill ride navigating the warped and buckling floors. They will be introduced to exposed wiring. They will be amazed by the incredibly disappearing roof. And yes, they will be saddened by how such an elegant masterpiece of architecture could be allowed to descend into an ancient ruin.

If the Belleview Biltmore were human, it would be dead.

A few days ago the Belleair Town Commission had a chance to do the right thing and finally put the decaying building out of its misery by approving a zoning change that would pave the way for its razing and begin the long process of redeveloping the property.

This is why we elect people — to make tough decisions, despite a well-intentioned but misguided cacophony of opposition.

Instead, the commission buckled to a vociferous group opposing the razing of the Biltmore, voting 3-2 to delay the rezoning measure for six months.

You know what this will lead to? Nothing, unless you count more mold, more water damage, less of a roof, more critters roaming the hallways — and even less of a chance of saving the building.

Nobody takes any pleasure in acknowledging that the Biltmore is on a death watch. To gaze upon this once amazing wooden structure is to recall its glory days dating back to 1897, when the 400-room resort opened. In time the Biltmore would host Babe Ruth, Margaret Thatcher and Henry Ford.

But perhaps nothing better captures the Biltmore's tragic condition than a look at the suite occupied by the last famous guest. In 2008, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama stayed at the Biltmore while he was preparing to debate Republican John McCain. Today, those same rooms look as if they've been caught in the middle of the Syrian civil war.

In the run-up to the commission vote, a group called Save the Biltmore Preservationists ran a rather disingenuous full-page advertisement urging the elected officials to deny the rezoning request. The ad featured a photograph of the hotel in its heyday with lush landscaping and a glittering, pristine edifice.

A more honest depiction would have shown the Biltmore as it really is today, suffering from the terminal cancer of years of neglect. That might have made a difference in the eventual commission vote.

You'd think being mayor of the fairly affluent Belleair would hardly be a high-stress job; about the only demands are keeping his constituents of swells content.

But now Mayor Gary Katica, who voted to approve the rezoning, finds himself at the center of a Belleair brouhaha.

As the mayor made his way through the darkened and moldy corridors of the Biltmore, Katica recalled his first visit to the hotel 78 years ago — as a 2-year-old toddler pushed along in a stroller by his mother.

The Biltmore has been a part of Katica's life ever since — weddings, proms, receptions, conventions. He literally grew with the hotel. And he takes no joy in recognizing that it is time to say goodbye.

There are some who insist that the Biltmore can be saved. And they are right. As engineer Mike McCarthy, who was retained to inspect the building, noted, just about any building can be rehabilitated — with enough money.

And on that score, Katica said it would cost an estimated $196 million to restore the Biltmore, a sum that would probably send the original owner, railroad magnate Henry B. Plant, into a catatonic stupor.

For the well-meaning preservationists, they've been given a six-month reprieve from reality. It ought to take that long to count to $196 million.

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