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An aging summer tradition washes away with the tide

Published Oct. 4, 2005

The beds are sagging, the sheets are thin, the windows are jalousie, the help often surly _ God, I'm going to miss the Tides.

The mayor of North Redington Beach, himself a longtime Bath Club member, delivered the eulogy this week. "Realistically, the Tides Hotel and Bath Club can't fly economically," Harold Radcliffe said.

The Tides will come down so a Tampa company called the EcoGroup _ great name for a land developer, don't you think? _ can build high-rise condos. The sale is pending.

Apparently the gulf beaches need more high-rises. Surely, the 10 acres of prime beachfront that houses the Tides could produce more tax money. The Tides hasn't fit the "highest and best use" definition for years. A spokesman for the developer dismissed the Tides architecture as a "mishmash."

But when the mishmash goes, so will the postage-stamp putting green, the pool with the underwater porthole, the bentwood lobby furniture, the band playing fox trots in the knotty pine bar, the fat ladies in flowered suits and bathing caps, the open air dressing room, the aging couples in pastel who order whiskey sours before dinner.

Oh, and so will the beachfront cabanas, with tiny kitchens and folding chairs, that people wait for years to lease. And the blue beach umbrellas that shade rickety wooden loungers.

For many kids in Tampa, summer meant at least one trip to the Bath Club. You might have learned to swim there, with an instructor holding your waist while you kicked and peddled your arms.

Older people recall the glamor days, when the Tides and the Vinoy were the epitome of class and luxury accommodations. John Baldwin, the late St. Petersburg fashion king, learned the business working at a Tides clothing store. Joe DiMaggio brought his new bride, Marilyn Monroe, for a romantic getaway.

In recent years, the Tides beckoned like a 1950s sex symbol, rough around the edges from too much living, but with more mystery and charm than the sterile new beauties now in fashion.

I discovered the Tides some 15 years ago when Tampa artist David Audet and University of South Florida film professor Charles Lyman took the Chinsegut Film Festival there. Old Bath Club members shook their heads as artsy coeds, dressed as gauzy Fellini-esque nymphs and banging tambourines, frolicked in the shallow water for Plant City photographer Bud Lee. One night they projected movies through the pool porthole and people swam among the images.

Friends rented the place for weekend parties, dancing in the ballroom, and walking, slightly drunk, along the beach in the moonlight. Families and friends met every year at the Tides for Memorial Day or Labor Day. Taking over two-bedroom cottages with furniture that didn't mind a wet bathing suit and beach sand and windows that opened to catch a late-night breeze.

Once, I interviewed the Tides beach boy _ a 39-year-old, low-rent Jimmy Buffett, who spent his days rocking umbrellas into the hard sand and his nights romancing visiting secretaries and waitresses from Ohio and Michigan.

I told him I envied his carefree life and wrote a column, A Beach Boy Looks At 40. I still regret that column more than any I've ever written. A week after it appeared, the beach boy, apparently embarrassed by my assessment of his life, quit to become a stockbroker.

He went on to something more practical. Soon, the Tides itself will follow. Realistically, the Tides doesn't make sense anymore.

I miss it already.

_ Paul Wilborn is a columnist for the Tampa edition of the Times.