The heart pine wood came from trees thought to have sprouted nearly 600 years ago in Florida and Georgia forests. The lumber was sawed down and transported to Belleair in 1896, where railroad magnate Henry Plant was building the magnificent Belleview Biltmore Hotel. The trees became the floorboards, trusses and joists that would be walked on by U.S. presidents, royalty, athletes, inventors and other dignitaries who stayed here, one of the largest wooden structures in the world. Now, as every board and frame of the 820,000-square-foot landmark comes down to make way for 132 condos and townhomes, some of the Biltmore will end up in James Schelkle's Gulfport living room.
"Just imagine, one of my favorite people in history, Thomas Edison, may have walked across this very flooring," Schelkle said. "The floor will be a conversation piece."
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When a court injunction and other efforts by preservationists failed to save the resort, which closed in 2009, developer Mike Cheezem's JMC Communities made it a goal to salvage as much of the original material as possible.
Deconstruction began in July, and Schiller's Architectural and Design Salvage of Tampa acquired the French doors, room keys, cabinets and other artifacts. Anderson Lumber of St. Petersburg took 10,000 square feet of flooring, 6,000 square feet of which has already been sold to residents in Tampa Bay.
All the rest — nearly a half-million board feet of heart pine wood from trusses, joists, cross beams and rafters — is being removed board by board, nail by nail, to be resold by North Carolina-based Southend Reclaimed.
Southend also has the rights to resell the hotel's bricks — all 250,000 of them.
This Biltmore wood, which grew in forests before colonists set foot in North America, will end up in homes, restaurants and other buildings across the country, feeding a growing thirst for an antiquated product with a unique look and a story to tell.
Southend Reclaimed will sell about half of its load to wholesale companies that will turn it into flooring, and the rest of it directly to architects, builders and home owners looking for a project.
"You can't find this look and quality out there anymore from a new tree," Southern Reclaimed president Paul Atkinson said. "It's really wood that comes with a story."
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The only way to find first-generation heart pine wood in abundance today is by raiding old textile mills, barns and other antique structures built centuries ago, Atkinson said.
These trees grew abundantly throughout the Southeast but were harvested nearly to extinction by early settlers and later by builders before the Industrial Revolution.
The first companies selling reclaimed wood from old factories and mills in bulk launched in the 1980s, but Atkinson said demand has spiked over the past five years. Trends are shifting from sleek, modern feels to rustic aesthetics. Reclaimed wood has a worn look with tight, dense growth rings that can't be re-created with stain or found in young trees, Atkinson said.
In the gravel lot behind the Biltmore, where workers are removing nails from boards one at a time, Southend operations manager Jason Hatchell points out clear, curved saw marks on the wood's surface. These are not flaws, but coveted remnants from the antiquated tools used when the trees were cut more than a century ago. "That's what most people are after is this saw-worn look," Hatchell said.
For the aged look and rareness of the materials, consumers will pay more for reclaimed wood, although neither Anderson Lumber nor Southend Reclaimed would disclose price points.
"Compared to new wood, it is more expensive," Atkinson said. "You can walk into Lowe's and say, 'Give me your cheapest floors,' and ours would be double that depending on the bells and whistles."
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Schelkle, a New York City architect, had his mind made up on flooring when he and his husband, Brian Holland, bought a 1940s fixer-upper in Gulfport this year. They had already installed 1,200 square feet of laminate flooring when Anderson Lumber sales director James Kenny called to tell Schelkle about the haul he just got from the Biltmore.
After one look at the heart pine, the couple ripped up the brand-new laminate and gave it to a neighbor.
As an architect, Schelkle has seen designers try to force the aesthetic when going for the rustic look. It just looks phony, he said.
But the rich color and dense rings from centuries-old trees is something you can't fake.
Especially not with a good story behind it.
"I think in architecture, you need a good imagination and a pile of wood," he said. "No finer pile wood could have been found, period."
Contact Tracey McManus at email@example.com or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.