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The old Vinoy, the battle to save it and the power of legacy

From the newest tower in the Vinoy Renaissance Resort and Golf Club, the view of downtown St. Petersburg is to the left, and the original 1925 building is at right. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Jun. 1, 2018

ST. PETERSBURG - The tours start late morning in the lobby of the hotel, guests gathering around a docent named Shirley Barbel. On this particular morning, Shirley explains, there is a conference of insurance agents laying claim to the Pepto-pink Vinoy Park Hotel's ballroom. "We're going to try to sneak in," she whispers, "but they may kick us out."

Shirley tells her huddle about 1925, when the ballroom first opened, on New Year's Eve. She asks them to imagine when there were no lights and the walls were painted beige, so that dancing ladies' dresses could be the stars of the show.

She points to the taupe curtains, the sweeping archways, the white columns. Considers the history, the antiquities, the wonder of it all.

Then there's static from a microphone, and an insurance agent taps Shirley. "We're being asked to leave," she says, and shoos her group outside.

***

What does it mean to be remembered?

Anet Willingham asks herself this, lying in bed at home in the mountains of southern California. There are electrodes taped to her head. The pain medication makes her tired.

The 70-year-old was diagnosed last year with spinal myoclonus. She has seizures every few hours. She is going to die, the doctors tell her.

Anet has a lot of time to think: about her life, about her work, about the days when she wore a straw hat that said "Bring Back the Vinoy!"

She remembers:

It was 1984. Anet and her husband, Al, owned a small architecture firm a few blocks west of the Vinoy.

The resort - once the winter home of the wealthiest families from Chicago - had become barracks for soldiers who kicked holes in the walls during the second world war. It fell into disrepair and sat empty for decades.

The ballroom turned into a bedroom for the city's homeless. They built bonfires on the lobby floor. And come the 1980s, the City Council wanted to demolish the waterside jewel turned squalor.

But Anet thought it was beautiful.

The building was a masterpiece of the Mediterranean revival style, one of the few survivors to new construction. Its ceramic floor tiles were all hand-made and in lesser-tread rooms, still vibrant shades of blues and greens.

Plus, the Vinoy was part of the city's logo. She thought it was important to hang onto. To remember. "It's our history," she says. "It's who we are."

Anet formed a political action committee. She printed 20,000 fliers. She talked to everyone she could. She hung a banner on the building: "Vinoy and Parks -- Vote Yes! Yes! Yes!"

Before the crucial council vote, Anet organized a tour. More than 10,000 people came to the open house, taking in the water views from the hotel's balconies, pressing their hands to its historic arches. One couple who had married at the Vinoy 47 years earlier came to reminisce.

Anet and the other volunteers wore their flat-brimmed straw hats and took questions.

Two days later, the vote was a resounding yes. The Vinoy was saved, then restored.

Anet moved on to helping preserve the Carnegie Library and the Colisseum, retrofitting the Studebaker Building, even crossing the bay to establish Tampa's Hyde Park Historic District.

But that was then. Now, Anet has lost 30 pounds. She can't leave her bedroom anymore. She was diagnosed with a terminal illness two years into what was supposed to be her retirement.

She wonders:

Is it important, to be remembered?

She doesn't care about her name echoing through the alleys that it's now hip to paint with murals. She knows much more has been lost to the history books.

It would be okay, she thinks, if just her grandchildren know what she was a part of saving. "That the reason it is the way it is," she says, "is because we were there."

***

The tour group is back in the lobby, having been ousted by the name-tagged insurance agents. "That's all right," Shirley says. Two tourists from Philadelphia join the huddle as the docent points out the stucco walls and wood floors.

"They advertised this place as fire-proof," Shirley says, returning to her tale. Back in the '20s, people were terrified of hotel fires. But this wood, here, was termite-proof and burned slowly. Even when vagrants had set fires on the floor, it stood its ground.

The docent goes on to tell the group about Aymer Vinoy Laughner, the Pennsylvania oilman who built the hotel; about the mayors and the developers; about the famous baseball players who will only stay in newer parts of the Vinoy, too superstitious about ghosts.

There is no mention of Anet Willingham. The tour is less than two hours, and too many people have a played a hand here to name them all. But standing in the lobby, just outside the ballroom, Shirley tells the group to look up.

On the ceiling are wood beams from the original hotel. "Pecky cypress," she explains. It's called "pecky" because of a dry rot that gets into the wood. That creates holes.

The holes, she says, are what makes it beautiful.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow her on Twitter @lisagartner.

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