1. Archive

Dusting off the welcome mat

Today is Nov. 1, and the Pennsylvania Hotel has its awnings out. The sight will stir a few old St. Petersburg hearts, for it is a signal of The Season. For years on this day, trains were met by hotel personnel, and streets were clogged as car doors were flung open and porters hustled to unload luggage. Downtown restaurants and shops revived with gusto. Their windows, which had been swathed in brown paper all summer, were spit-and-polish clean, sporting "Now Open" signs.

"November 1st _ that was it. Fifty-three years in the hotel business, and that was the beginning of the season," said Bill Bond Sr., general manager of the Pennsylvania Hotel, which has been owned by the Bond family all those years.

Virginia Bussey will be at the front desk at the Pennsylvania, at Fourth Street and Third Avenue N, when the winter visitors arrive today, some for the 20th season. She recalls when some 30 hotels of all sizes opened at this time. Her late husband, Jim, owned the Bainbridge Hotel for a few years and the Colonial from the '40s to the late '60s, when it, too, was bought by the Bonds. "We'd have the same staff, the same guests, year after year," she said.

But the Bainbridge has been torn down, as has another old favorite, the Albemarle. The Pennflora has closed and will be torn down and replaced by a parking lot. And Bay Plaza Cos. bought the Colonial and has an option to buy the Ponce De Leon.

Phil Dross, now manager of the McCarthy Hotel, which operates year-round, remembers well the preparations he made to open for the season when he was manager of the Princess Martha, now a retirement residence.

"It was exciting because the hotels and the stores all opened, too. We were house cleaning a month before opening. Then the staff came in. When I came in '48, everything closed in the summer." The McCarthy Hotel, he said, formerly was the Dennis, another of the little seasonal hotels.

The three big downtown hotels that deviated from the November norm were the Vinoy and the Soreno, which opened in December for only three months, and the Suwannee (now NCNB National Bank), which operated year-round.

Bond says the Pennsylvania's business couldn't be better, with the closing of the Colonial and the Ponce. "We have 132 of our 136 rooms filled for the whole six-month season." He knows of no other old downtown hotel that operates on a seasonal basis.

"I guess we're the last of the Mohicans."