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Touring a treasure

All year long, visitors can explore the labyrinthine splendor of the 102-year-old Belleview Biltmore Resort in Belleair.

Maybe it's the creaky wood floor. Or perhaps it's the grand staircase that winds down five floors. It could be the underground tunnel system where workers once scurried about.

It can be hard to choose a favorite feature of the stately Belleview Biltmore Resort and Spa, a 102-year-old hotel with a colorful past. Locals and visitors are given the opportunity to do just that through a historical tour the hotel offers 365 days a year.

"We have this wonderful place in our own back yard," said Barbara Sherman, who works in the sales department at the Victorian-style hotel. "It's got such unique architectural features."

Features like 2 miles of corridors, 292 rooms and 67 gables. And wood _ lots of wood.

"You are in the world's largest occupied wooden structure," tour guide Sharon Delahanty tells a small group Tuesday.

The hotel was built with "heart of pine" brought down to Pinellas County from North Florida and South Georgia by members of the county's pioneer Coachman family, who had a lumber mill nearby.

Prices to rent a room in the resort range from $129 for a basic room to $1,250 for the Presidential Suite. When the hotel first opened in 1897, rooms were $4 per night.

The tour begins in the hotel's new lobby, which was built in 1991 to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Delahanty, 59, then guides her guests to the hotel's spa, which was built in 1986 on what was once a putting green.

Stops on the tour include the east wing, which was added to the hotel in 1910; the Tiffany room, which served as a mess hall when the U.S. Army Air Corps used the hotel as a training facility during World War II; and the Starlight room, where guests watched movies or danced until the wee hours of the morning.

"This is the room where I like to say, "If the walls could talk,' " Delahanty said. "This is where they had their fun."

Other highlights of the tour include a secret staircase, which the employees used in the hotel's early days; a large men's restroom in the basement, with a tall, marble shoeshine stand; and an underground tunnel system, where the building's original wiring still hangs and old wooden beams are now hard as rocks.

Pamela Truax, 45, of Tarpon Springs, took the tour on Tuesday with her mother, Agatha Truax, 82, of Dunedin. Both women have been to the Belleview Biltmore numerous times, but never took the tour.

"We should appreciate the older treasures we have here on the gulf coast _ and she's definitely a treasure," said Pamela Truax, who works for a local media research firm. "It's just beautiful."

Delahanty agrees.

"Oh, she's a fascinating place," she said. "Once she gets to you, she doesn't leave."

HISTORICAL HIGHLIGHTS

1895 _ Railroad tycoon Henry B. Plant buys thousands of acres and begins construction of the hotel.

1897 _ On Jan. 15, the Belleview Hotel opens.

1909 _ Plant's son, Morton, succeeds with the completion of an 18-hole "grass greens" golf course.

1919 _ John McEntee Bowman buys the hotel and adds the name Biltmore, now the Belleview Biltmore.

1925 _ The south wing is completed and the Tiffany room is enlarged to its present size.

1942-44 _ U.S. Army Air Corps moves 3,000 servicemen into the hotel as an auxiliary barracks for MacDill and Drew fields.

1946 _ Bernard Powell, Nora Mae Peabody and Roger L. Stevens buy the hotel.

1975 _ Aluminium siding is applied to the exterior.

1979 _ The hotel is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

1990 _ Hideo Kurosawa buys the hotel and adds the name Mido, now the Belleview Mido.

1997 _ The hotel celebrates 100 years.

_ The Jetha Corp. buys the hotel and returns the name to the Belleview Biltmore.

FACTS ABOUT THE HOTEL

Has 2 miles of corridor.

Has more than 1,700 windows.

Before it was covered in siding, it took more than 1,000 gallons of paint to cover the exterior walls.

Sits on 21 acres.

Has 4,700 light bulbs.

Has 1,552 air-conditioning units.

Has 300 employees.

The Duke of Windsor stayed at the hotel.

Source: Belleview Biltmore Resort and Spa

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