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St. Petersburg's Vinoy Renaissance resort breaks ground on renovations

Miriam Torres, principal designer for Parker Torres Design, discusses improvements to the Vinoy Gulf Club Wednesday at the club. JEROME R. STOCKFISCH | TIMES
Published May 11, 2016

ST. PETERSBURG — The city's stately landmark hotel, which has reflected opulence, neglect and rebirth as a catalyst for downtown redevelopment over its 90 years, will be getting a facelift as it enters a new era.

"We're a historic landmark and that will always be who we are. We have to honor that legacy. But we also have to make it relevant to the next generation of millennial traveler," said Barbara Readey, general manager of the Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club. "I do think this redevelopment is going to make a statement as to the changing demographics of St. Petersburg. Younger families are moving here, and restaurants are popping up appealing to the trendier (clientele)."

The resort hotel, sitting just off the waterfront at 501 Fifth Ave. NE, will get a multiphased renovation and redevelopment, starting immediately with the Vinoy Golf Club, a section of the complex spreading onto Snell Isle. It will include a new pool deck with a kids' splash zone, redesigned clubhouse restaurant, new poolside food and beverage service, redesigned locker rooms and improvements to the golf course and practice facility.

A groundbreaking ceremony was held Wednesday, and the golf club phase of construction will begin immediately. Toward the end of the year, a second phase will focus on the hotel itself, with a new spa, fitness center, additional parking, new tennis courts and a marina-front restaurant on the drawing board.

Readey said the hotel phase of the renovation is still "in ideation" and "the cash registers are still ringing," so owner FelCor Lodging Trust hasn't said how much the overall project would cost. It wouldn't approach the $93 million pumped into the 1992 rebirth of the historic resort, she said.

According to local lore, the Vinoy was born out of a golf bet. Legendary golfer Walter Hagen was challenged to hit balls off the pocket watch of Aymer Vinoy Laughner, a wealthy Pennsylvania oilman and winter visitor. From Laughner's yard, Hagen did so cleanly — without cracking the watch crystal — and members of the golf party goaded Laughner into building a hotel where the balls had fallen.

The Vinoy Park Hotel opened on New Year's Eve 1925. Over the years, the rich and famous flocked to the hotel, among them President Calvin Coolidge, Babe Ruth and Marilyn Monroe.

During World War II, the hotel was leased to the military. It reopened to the public after the war, but demand for rooms sank, and Laughner sold it. After decades of decline, it closed in 1974.

The building sat in squalor through the 1970s and '80s, its windows broken, its halls roamed by the homeless and the mischievous. But in the late 1980s, New York developer Fred Guest foresaw a grand hotel amid bustling streets, shops and residential development.

He pumped $93 million into the facility, doubling the size of rooms and building a tower of 100 new rooms. The Stouffer Vinoy Resort reopened to much celebration in 1992.

Architects and designers focused on that rich history with the new renovation, said Miriam Torres, principal designer with Parker-Torres Design Inc. of Sudbury, Mass.

"When we were awarded the project, the most important thing to me was how to celebrate the history," Torres said. She read historical accounts of the resort, she said, "and I realized how important it was to bring back the grandeur of the 1920s."

That will be reflected in particular fabrics and patterns such as the herringbone common to the era. There will be special touches — columns partly wrapped in red leather, conjuring the look of golf club grips from the 1920s, and personal liquor lockers appearing as suitcases from the time.

"These are references that people at first would not realize, but as they look into it, they'll know how important it was to design the very small details and the very elegant references to the property," Torres said. "The property was so iconic. It was important to take a special look and to reference to the past before we go into the future."

New York developer Guest was just slightly premature with his downtown vision — the hotel was foreclosed on in 1993 and ownership has changed hands several times. But there is little doubt a viable, high-end hotel played a role in St. Petersburg's remarkable resurgence.

"To have a space like this on the waterfront that was really the heart and soul of the city, that was shuttered for as long as it was, it kind of reflected in some ways the city," St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman said at Wednesday's event. "And as this facility came to life, the city started coming back to life. Today, it's hard to imagine our downtown and our waterfront without a Vinoy.

"It's the heart that keeps the blood flowing through the downtown area," he said.

Construction is expected to take roughly two years. Both the golf club and hotel will remain open during renovations.

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