The historic Belleview Biltmore hotel in Belleair that once counted presidents, dignitaries and celebrities as guests is in irreversible decay. Its wood floors slant, and black mold creeps up walls and ceilings. When it rains, water pours through the damaged roof. It may have been possible a few years ago to renovate Florida's largest wooden structure building as local preservationists hoped, but that opportunity has passed. A respected St. Petersburg developer has signed a contract to buy the property, and the Belleair Town Commission should endorse zoning changes this week that will begin clearing the way for residential redevelopment and for the hotel to be demolished.
For years community activists have pursued a valiant preservation fight for the once elegant, historic landmark hotel built by Henry B. Plant, which opened in the late 19th century with guests arriving by railroad car. A building of rare historical significance, with Tiffany glass and a massive ballroom that was the site of glittering galas and society affairs, it is a significant loss to Pinellas history. Despite being a drain on the town's tax rolls, public officials have been reluctant to approve the razing of a hotel that counts Barack Obama, Babe Ruth, Margaret Thatcher and Henry Ford among its guests. But the commission has no real option left.
An engineering firm that has analyzed the condition of the building during each of the last three years says the hotel is so dilapidated that 25 percent would have to be demolished and a "significant portion" repaired, including leveling the floors. To say it's a wreck inside doesn't begin to describe the decaying conditions, where mold has overtaken full rooms. Absent very deep pockets with no interest in return on investment, renovations would be cost-prohibitive. A hoped-for purchase by a Coral Gables architect — one in a long line of people who promised to save the structure — has not come through.
Blame the loss of the Biltmore on its negligent former owners. Its roof was severely damaged during the 2004 storm season. Tarps used to keep out the elements tore away without being replaced. The insidious water seepage caused progressive deterioration from the top floor to the floors below year after year. The hotel sits on prime land for development that could add to the tax rolls, and it is harming the property values in the neighborhood and stands as a dangerous eyesore.
Commissioners will take up zoning changes on Tuesday. That should begin the process of eventually allowing demolition of the Biltmore and the property's residential redevelopment by JMC Communities, whose projects have helped revitalize downtown St. Petersburg and Clearwater Beach. The Biltmore's time has passed, and the dream of preservation is too expensive to come true.