BELLEAIR — In its day, it was known as the Queen of the Gulf, a magnificent 400-room hotel that played host to presidents, celebrities and the not-so-famous who helped develop Florida's west coast.
But a series of owners, including one that sold off its prime waterfront and another that added Japanese pagodas, sent the Belleview Biltmore into a long decline. If finally closed in 2009, seemingly destined for the wrecking ball.
Instead, the Biltmore has been reborn as the Belleview Inn, a boutique hotel that preserves the lobby, 35 rooms and much of the grandeur of its illustrious namesake.
"It just feels fabulous,'' developer J. Michael Cheezem said today at ribbon-cutting ceremonies for the inn. "It feels like a 100-year-old new building.''
Said to be one of the world's largest wooden structures, the original hotel had so deteriorated by the time Cheezem's JMC Communities bought it several years ago that it was considered beyond saving. But Cheezem decided to preserve the 38,000 square-foot heart of the original 820,000-square-foot hotel as the historic and social centerpiece of his new Belleview Place carriage home community.
To that end, the 1,750-ton salvaged section of the Biltmore had to be turned 90 degrees and moved 230 feet on computerized dollies to its new location at the head of Belleview Boulevard. Workers refinished the original plank floors and reinstalled Tiffany-era glass ceilings as part of a restoration estimated to cost as much as $13 million.
Guests can now walk across the broad front porch and into an elegant lobby with twin fireplaces, a grand piano and a view of the spacious lawn and pool. On the walls, paintings by artist Christopher Still pay homage to the history of the Biltmore, built in 1897 by Henry Plant as part of a network of railroads, steamships and hotels that transformed many areas of Florida
Dressed in a top hat and morning suit from the 1890s, Still lauded both Plant and Cheezem as guests milled about before the ceremonies.
"How could someone imagine that in 1897 someone would cut through the wilderness of Florida to build a luxury hotel and that a man would later pick it up, turn it around, move it the length of a football field and so lovingly restore it to its grand beginning?'' he asked.
The inn contains many nods to its past, including photos of famous guests displayed in the Morton Room, named for Plant's son and the namesake of Morton Plant Hospital. Among the guest were Mr. Rogers (who also gave swimming lessons at the Biltmore); Bob Dylan, Babe Ruth, Marilyn Monroe and George H.W. Bush, whose state funeral began almost simultaneously with the ribbon-cutting.
The inn does not have a restaurant, but guests can buy Dove bars, goat cheese and other edibles in Maisie's Market. The wife of Morton Plant, Maisie is pictured fingering an exquisite strand of pearls that her much older husband obtained in 1917 in exchange for a mansion on New York's Fifth Avenue.
The inn opens to the public Saturday, and is fully booked for the night. The 35 restored rooms, with introductory rates starting around $175, feature several floor plans and views, including of the golf course that used to be part of the Biltmore hotel property. Guests will have access to the amenities of the Sandpearl Resort on Clearwater Beach.
Dignitaries touring the inn on Wednesday included Karla Rettstatt, deputy mayor of the town of Belleair. She and many other residents were skeptical the Biltmore could be saved in any form.
"I hoped, I worried and I honestly never thought it would it would ever come to fruition,'' she said. "The commission, the town, the residents are thrilled with what Michael Cheezem has done with this hotel. Belleair wouldn't be here, Morton Plant (Hospital) wouldn't be here without the hotel.''
Contact Susan Taylor Martin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8642. Follow @susanskate.