BELLEAIR — Late in the year, when the trees were bare and the air turned cold, the wealthy of the Gilded Age would pack their trunks, board lavishly appointed trains and head south. Many would disembark near land’s end, at the grand Hotel Belleview overlooking Clearwater Bay.
Here, they could fish for tarpon, waltz under Tiffany glass in the ballroom or simply relax on the broad front porch of what was said to be the world’s largest occupied wooden structure.
The hotel and the railroad that brought them were the creation of Henry Plant, a Connecticut entrepreneur who envisioned Florida’s west coast not only as a winter retreat but as a place to live year-round. As the area grew beyond even his expectations, the 145-room Queen Anne-style hotel drew presidents, royalty and celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Babe Ruth and Bob Dylan. It changed owners many times — one leased it as a barracks for the Army Air Corps during World War II — until loss of the waterfront property, huge maintenance costs and competition from newer hotels drove its decline. The Belleview closed in 2009, seemingly destined for the wrecking ball.
Developer J. Michael Cheezem came to the rescue. He, like Plant, had a vision, but this time as an upscale community of condos and townhomes with a boutique hotel as its centerpiece. At a cost of $13 million, he had the core of the old hotel moved 230 feet from its original site and restored to its former glory.
Today it is known as the Belleview Inn, with 35 bedrooms, a pool and a Donald Ross-designed golf course.
The inn, the setting for our striking array of fall fashions, is the only surviving hotel of the eight that Plant built, including one in Tampa that is now part of the University of Tampa. Opened in 1897 on a bluff 45 feet above sea level, among the highest points in coastal Florida, the Belleview doubled in size after Plant died and son Morton took over at the turn of the century.
Morton added the golf course and an Olympic-size pool lined with 1 million Italian tiles. He had the roof painted green and the exterior a bright white, prompting admirers to dub the hotel the “White Queen of the Gulf.” Muck talk was made of the fact that Morton had traded a mansion on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue to Cartier, the Paris jeweler that wanted a New York site, in exchange for an exquisite strand of pearls for his third wife, Maisie. Today a portrait of Maisie and her pearls hangs in the inn’s small market, where guests can buy wine, beer and snacks.
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When his son was seriously injured in a car accident, Morton was shocked to discover there was no hospital nearby. He brought in a surgical train car and donated money for what is still known as Morton Plant Hospital in Clearwater. Morton died in 1918 and subsequent owners further enlarged the hotel to 820,000 square feet with 455 rooms. It was so big that carpet was purchased by the mile instead of the yard.
Renamed the Belleview Biltmore (after the Biltmore House in Asheville, N.C. ) and then the Belleview Mido under Japanese ownership, the hotel finally was sold to Cheezem in 2015.
Within a year, most of the building had been deconstructed except for salvageable parts like windows, doors and wood that could be reused. Workers began excavating under the oldest part of the hotel to lay steel beams for support. It took two days to lift the structure up so it could be moved by 46 computerized hydraulic dollies.
The 36,000-square-foot surviving section of hotel, rotated 90 degrees to align with the foundation on its new site, began its journey. The move of less than a tenth of a mile took four hours as hundreds of spectators watched. Workers then refinished the original heart pine floors and reinstalled Tiffany-era glass ceilings as part of the restoration.
Now, 124 years after the Hotel Belleview opened, its namesake inn is part of a chain that includes the Sandpearl and Opal Sands resorts on Clearwater Beach. The inn hosts weddings and other functions, as well as guests content to just sit on the broad porches, enjoying the balmy breezes the way visitors did back in 1897.
The Belleview Inn is at 25 Belleview Blvd., Belleair. 727-441-1774. thebelleviewInn.com. Information from the film Belleview Waltz was included in this report.