1. Archive

Belleview Biltmore paints memories

In 1947, I was still a student at St. Petersburg High School. My dad was contracted by Don Church, then-manager of the up-and-coming Belleview Biltmore Hotel, to help restore the great hotel after the U.S. Army vacated it.

My introduction to the Belleview Biltmore was by way of Dad hiring me to help paint there. I remember driving up from St. Petersburg, passing orange groves for miles, going through Largo in about two minutes, and arriving at the bridge at the entrance to the hotel.

What a sight! The largest wooden structure still being occupied, or so I was told. The hotel was completely self-sufficient, with its own water supply and even its own fire truck. Dad gave me my first job, painting the edges of the hall carpets. Little did I know that there were 7{ miles of carpeted halls!

From 1947 to 1961 (with two years out for time in the Army), I grew to love and appreciate the Grand Dame of resort hotels. I worked in the service department of the Belleview Biltmore during the winter season and worked at New England resorts in the summer.

What a great life, living in one of the great resorts of the world. That first year there was only one 18-hole golf course, an Olympic swimming pool (where the condos are now), a drugstore (beside the current golf shop), a schoolhouse down toward the water, numerous tennis courts and at the front of the hotel (which is the back now) there was a flight of steps that led to the front lobby.

Inside it was beautiful and busy. Overstuffed furniture. Lovely flower arrangements by Melvin Blade, our resident florist, who used flowers from the hotel gardens when possible. People hurrying to the different shops _ barbershops, children's shops, clothing shops for men and women, a beauty shop and a jewelry shop, among others.

For two years after I was married, I remained at the hotel during the summers, helping to paint the old wooden structures. I remember paint salesmen continuously coming around to give us samples _ latex paint (new on the market), paint rollers, staging to be put up easily and many other painting products. After all, we were the largest wooden structure to be painted.

I can remember painting the ceiling in the dining room, which fed 1,000 Army troops during the war but afterward catered to 1,000 hotel guests and employees. Mr. Trenholm, the maitre d' whose first name I no longer remember, and Andy Spence, the chef, kept everyone happy.

I can remember traveling all the hallways, even the ones underground that went almost the entire length of the hotel. And I never saw a ghost. My boss and I tried to scare our resident plasterer by putting sheets over our heads, but I was the one that got caught with a broom over the head.

During the winter, when the "Lady" was in full swing, I worked as a doorman, greeting all the wonderful guests: Bishop Fulton Sheen, movie star Lana Turner, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the Lennon Sisters and many others were regularly here. After all, this was the best hotel in Florida.

Many employees came back year after year. We had rights to play golf and tennis, had beach and pool time, use of the main ballroom for movies and dances and the privilege of working for great management.

Even though I've forgotten so many names, I still enjoy going to the Belleview and roaming the halls, going down into the tunnels below, to the employees' dining room, into the old paint shop and out onto the steps of the old front entrance and into the old Bimini Room, into the old offices of Bernie Powell and Don Church and into the once beautiful dining room.

Please don't tear down the Belleview. You can never replace its beauty with condominiums or malls. At least wait another 50 years, for maybe by then no one connected to the history of the hotel will be around to care.

Don S. Audibert of Largo and Cape Cod worked at the Belleview Biltmore Hotel in Belleair until 1961. He retired in 1989 from the U.S. Postal Service.