The grand old hotel on the bluff is having a birthday _ a big one.
Come Friday, the White Queen of the Gulf, known more formally through the years as the Belleview, then the Belleview Biltmore and now the Belleview Mido, will be 100 years old.
Although the sides are now covered with aluminum siding and many of the original parts have been replaced at least a couple of times, there's still plenty about the old hotel to draw you back to a bygone era: a time when women in long skirts sipped tea together on the hotel's south lawn in the afternoons, a time when men in knee breeches teed off from shell greens at the hotel's original course, advertised in 1898 as "six sporty holes of golf."
A century later, the hotel "still has a grand style and elegance you don't find anywhere else in Clearwater," said Timothy Johnson Jr., a local lawyer and the great-grandson of Charles Wharton Johnson, the man who originally homesteaded the hotel property. "I always enjoy going there."
The old hotel sits high on a bluff overlooking Clearwater Harbor. At 45 feet above sea level, it is said to be the highest bluff on the West Coast of Florida.
The hotel's wooden corridors creak when you walk down them. The porches and window sills remain the original "heart of pine" that was trekked down to Pinellas County from North Florida and South Georgia by members of Pinellas County's pioneer Coachman family, who had a lumber mill nearby.
Underground tunnels and corridors run the length and width of the hotel and secret wooden staircases to all five stories stay hidden away from the eyes of guests. In the hotel basement, there remains a large men's restroom with a tall, marble shoe shine stand that was a gathering place for men vacationing at the hotel.
During the hotel's heyday in the 1920s, "I've been told there were three principal topics of conversation in that room," said Connie Mudano, Belleair's mayor and a local historian. "Gambling in the casino next door, the stock market, and the exchange of telephone numbers of ladies of the evening in Ybor City."
The hotel's 100-year history is colorful and is in many ways a reflection of the history of the nation. Built in 1895 and 1896 by Henry Bradley Plant, it was envisioned as a winter vacation resort for wealthy, northern businessmen and their families.
Plant, a Connecticut native who spent most of his adult life in Georgia managing a freight shipping business, had an ulterior motive for building a Florida resort. In the late 1870s, he had begun to expand his holdings to include southern railroad lines. In 1895, he leased the Orange Belt Railway line, which connected Sanford to St. Petersburg. A luxurious Florida resort destination would attract passengers to his railroads.
When the hotel opened on Jan. 17, 1897, many of the guests from Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other northern cities arrived at the Hotel Belleview on their own private rail cars pulled by Orange Belt engines. Tracks ran onto the hotel grounds. While guests walked across the lawn to register at the front desk, bellmen on handcars rode out to the rail cars to unload luggage. The luggage was carted across the lawn on side tracks which extended under the hotel. From there, it was unloaded from the handcarts and carried to guest rooms above. Portions of the underground track remain.
Old photographs show there were times when more than a dozen private rail cars were parked at the hotel.
Plant, the father of Morton F. Plant, founder of Clearwater's largest hospital, made sure news of his new resort reached the rich and famous. A booklet published before the 1898 winter season described the Belleview Hotel this way: "Every bedroom has three incandescent lights, a mantel of polished cedar with handsome tiling surrounding the fire place, polished floors and oak or cherry furniture. There are several suites of rooms with baths connecting."
The price of one of the hotel's 145 rooms in the early days was $4. You could stay a week for $21. Meals were $1 extra. Today, rooms during the winter season are a minimum of $190; a hamburger in the hotel's Terrace Cafe is $7.25.
Plant's resort was an overnight success, according to old newspaper accounts. By the third year of operation, the West Hillsborough Press reported "there is not a room to spare all season."
Timothy Johnson Jr. bemoans the day the Belleview's grounds slipped from the hands of his ancestor.
"The family story is that (Charles Wharton Johnson) had a boat," Johnson said. "It was a mail boat that transported mail from Cedar Key to Key West.
"One day, exhibiting the classic Johnson family tradition of poor navigational skills, he ran aground near Clearwater and discovered the bluff.
"He liked it, so he moved his family down and homesteaded there. He planted some orange trees but they wouldn't grow. So in the classic Johnson family tradition of poor real estate deals, he traded the Belleview property to Mr. Plant for land in Largo that was the old county fairgrounds site," now Largo Central Park.
Johnson's loss was Plant's gain, although Plant didn't live long enough to really enjoy it. He died in 1899, leaving the hotel to his investment company and family heirs.
Through the years, the hotel was expanded and remodeled by new owners and managers. An East Wing was added in 1910, which doubled the hotel's capacity. The addition included the beginnings of the Tiffany Room with its 96 panels of Tiffany-era glass. Today, the massive room can seat up to 800 guests. An Olympic-size outdoor pool was added in 1917. In 1920, the pool was the site for Olympic swimming trials.
Mayor Mudano has a photo in a file that shows a school building near the waterfront where children of hotel guests attended classes. She also has photos of 19 cottages built on hotel grounds by wealthy guests who used them as their winter homes. All but three of the cottages have been destroyed; those that remain are now privately owned.
In 1919, the name of the hotel was changed to the Belleview Biltmore when new owner John McEntee came on board and added it to his chain of Biltmore hotels. In 1924, a south wing was added, bringing the hotel to its present size of 460 guest rooms. Golf has always been a main reason to vacation at the Belleview. By 1915, the hotel owned two eighteen-hole courses and over the years has catered to golf greats Irvin Cobbe, Babe Didrickson, Betty Hicks, Tommy Harmon, Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen, among others.
The stock market crash of 1929 brought hard times to the hotel. After struggling for a few years, the hotel went into a receivership in 1935 and remained there until it was purchased in 1939 by the Kirkeby hotel chain.
In 1942, the U.S. government took over the hotel, using it as a base for more than 3,000 members of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Pat Counts, a hotel employee who today takes visitors on tours of the hotel, said before the Army moved in, all of the hotel's luxurious furnishings were moved out. The luxuries were replaced with bunk beds, with up to eight soldiers occupying each room. The Tiffany Room became a mess hall and the kitchen began churning out Army chow instead of gourmet treats.
"I've had over a dozen servicemen return and take my tour," Counts said. "Some have given us pictures taken of them in front of the hotel."
While the Army occupied the hotel, servicemen installed a sprinkler system that is still in place. Over the years, there has been only one reported hotel fire. According to a St. Petersburg Times article from the 1970s, a woman on an upper floor once let an iron set her ironing board on fire, which in turn burned the floor. The fire was quickly put out.
Once the war was over, the government returned the hotel to the Kirkeby hotel chain, which sold it to St. Petersburg financier Ed C. Wright in 1944. Wright, who bought the hotel as an investment, had no desire to operate it. So it remained closed until 1947, when new owners Bernard Powell, his sister Nora Mae Peabody, and Roger Stevens refurbished it and opened it once again to the public.
On Dec. 26, 1979, after a concerted effort by the ownership and local historians, the hotel, believed to be the largest occupied wooden structure in the world, was named to the National Register of Historic Places.
The Powell/Peabody/Stevens ownership team remained until 1990, when the hotel was sold to a Japanese firm, the Mido Development Company, for $27.5-million. The name of the hotel once again was changed, this time to the Belleview Mido. New owners changed the entrance of the hotel, built a new lobby, added a swimming pool with a whirlpool and built four red-clay tennis courts at the site of the original swimming pool.
Powell kept an office in the hotel and became an adviser to the new owners.
"I'm most proud that the hotel is a happy place," Powell said. "It's a happy place not only for the guests but for the employees as well."
He said the hotel is probably the "most beautifully constructed in the world."
Old, wooden beams have aged until they are as hard as rocks, Powell said.
"There's never a drop of humidity in the building because of its wooden structure."
Karen Case, marketing and public relations coordinator for the hotel, said 70 percent of the hotel's business today is for meetings and corporate conventions. Visitors nearly always have two questions: "Is it really the largest occupied wooden structure, and are there any ghosts?"
Both Case and Mayor Mudano say they know of no wooden structure larger than the Belleview Mido and neither has ever heard a ghostly tale.
Ironically, Timothy Johnson Jr. serves as legal council for the Belleview Mido's ownership group. He said he relayed his family's ties to the hotel to Hideo Kurosawa, president of the development company.
"He was amused by all of that," Johnson said.
As for persistent rumors the hotel is about to be sold once again, Johnson said there is currently no contract under consideration.
"I think it is fair to say if someone offered the right price, it could be bought," Johnson said of the hotel, which has an appraised value for tax purposes of $286,900. "I don't think that was true a year ago."
Johnson would not say what kind of offer the corporate officers would consider.
Information from old newspaper files, the personal files of Belleair Mayor Connie Mudano, and the Pinellas County Historical Museum at Heritage Village were used in this report.
Facts about the Belleview
Said to be the largest occupied wooden structure in the world.
Has more than two miles of corridors.
Has more than 1,700 windows.
Takes 15 minutes to walk around the perimeter of the hotel.
Before it was covered in siding in 1975, it took more than 1,000 gallons of paint to cover the exterior walls.
More than 4,000 light bulbs throughout the building. There is one employee whose only duty is to make sure all the light bulbs work.
Sits on 23 acres.
The cost of the original structure is unknown to historians.
Famous people who have visited the Belleview include: the Duke of Windsor, Margaret Thatcher, President George Bush, President Gerald Ford, Babe Ruth, Tony Bennett, Jerry Lee Lewis, Robin Leach, Cesar Romero, Billy Joel, the Temptations, Joan Baez, Gene Autry, Peter Marshall, Adrien Arpel, Pete Fountain, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, Joe DiMaggio, Dionne Warwick, Fred MacMurray, Christie Brinkley, The Lennon Sisters, Beverly Sassoon, George Foreman, Norman Rockefeller, Jane Pauley, Gary Trudeau, Bob Dylan, Caroline Kennedy, Mickey Mantle, Dizzy Dean, Sally Jessy Raphael and practically all golf greats from 1900 through 1940.