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Belleview Biltmore one of five biggest preservation losses on national list

Demolition has begun on the long-shuttered Belleview Biltmore. After a years-long fight by preservationists to save the crumbling landmark, the dilapidated 1890s-era hotel is being torn down to make way for townhomes and condominiums. Built in 1897 by railroad tycoon Henry Plant, the Belleview Biltmore was the last grand Victorian hotel in Florida. Known as the "White Queen of the Gulf" and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it hosted presidents, celebrities and generations of Pinellas residents and guests before closing in 2009. Belleair has approved owner JMC Communities' plan to tear down all but the original structure's roughly 38,000-square-feet west wing, or 10 percent, for conversion into a boutique inn with salvaged pieces incorporated into the decor. The inn will then be joined by 132 new condos and townhomes. [JIM DAMASKE   |   Times]
Demolition has begun on the long-shuttered Belleview Biltmore. After a years-long fight by preservationists to save the crumbling landmark, the dilapidated 1890s-era hotel is being torn down to make way for townhomes and condominiums. Built in 1897 by railroad tycoon Henry Plant, the Belleview Biltmore was the last grand Victorian hotel in Florida. Known as the "White Queen of the Gulf" and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it hosted presidents, celebrities and generations of Pinellas residents and guests before closing in 2009. Belleair has approved owner JMC Communities' plan to tear down all but the original structure's roughly 38,000-square-feet west wing, or 10 percent, for conversion into a boutique inn with salvaged pieces incorporated into the decor. The inn will then be joined by 132 new condos and townhomes. [JIM DAMASKE | Times]
Published Dec. 23, 2015

BELLEAIR — The demolition of an iconic hotel and the legal battle waged to try to save it has put the Belleview Biltmore Hotel on the National Trust for Historic Preservation's top 10 Wins and Losses List for 2015.

Built in 1897 along Clearwater Harbor, the 400-room Biltmore played host to royalty and business magnates before closing in 2009.

In May 2014, activist group Friends of the Belleview Biltmore filed a federal lawsuit attempting to block the hotel's sale to, and demolition by, St. Petersburg developer Mike Cheezem.

The lawsuit, led by activists Rae Claire Johnson, Doris Hanson and Mary Lou White, accused Belleair commissioners of nepotism and collusion in the hotel's sale by ignoring the town's preservation ordinance.

A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in November 2014, and Cheezem began demolition of the 820,000-square-foot structure this year to make way for 132 condominiums and townhomes.

Elizabeth S. Merritt, deputy general counsel for the National Trust, called the Biltmore's demolition a "failure of justice" because the activists and staff of the National Trust involved in other lawsuits to stop the demolition were unable to present their full argument.

"The legal system failed to provide a remedy for what we felt was a really strong legal argument," Merritt said. "The local people in the town should be concerned that their local government was willing to kind of sell their town's heritage to the highest bidder, essentially."

Cheezem said his project, which is salvaging 118-year-old heart pine floors, stained-glass skylights and other fixtures, is a way to preserve the spirit of the resort, even though deterioration made it impossible to save the entire structure.

The Biltmore's original lobby and three floors of rooms will be remodeled into a 33-room boutique inn for weddings and events at the center of the condominium project.

"To me, we are making a significant effort and are saving the history and the spirit of the Belleview Biltmore Hotel," he said.

Cheezem said as developers bought surrounding land over the years, the resort shrunk from 250 acres to 17 and lost waterfront access. It had eight different owners since 1985, and none could transform it back to its glory days, especially as the aging structure began deteriorating.

Demolition is about 60 percent complete, and construction on the condominiums will begin in early summer, Cheezem said.

Contact Tracey McManus at tmcmanus@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.

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