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Belleview Biltmore makes slow move to future home (w/ timelapse video)


Almost every single plank, door, beam and joist of the 120-year-old Belleview Biltmore Hotel has been taken down, piece by piece, over the past 15 months.

But a 38,000-square-foot piece that includes the original lobby and 35 guest rooms was left standing to carry on the legacy of a hotel that has hosted U.S. presidents, royalty, sports stars and entertainers.

On Wednesday, workers moved the 1,750-ton structure 230 feet on 47 hydraulic computerized dollies using a synchronized jacking system to its new foundation where it will be repurposed into an inn. It rolled at 0.25 mph over about four hours, with various stops for workers to traverse the steel plates underneath.

Hundreds of spectators came to take in the sight, considered a milestone in a nearly 10-year saga of uncertainty and contention over the historic hotel's future. It came after a legal battle, raucous town commission meetings and division that has lasted a decade.

"This just split the town between preservationists and people who were realistic and realized it had reached a point where it couldn't be saved," said Belleair Mayor Gary Katica. "I think we've come up with a great compromise."

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Built in 1897 by railroad magnate Henry Plant, the 400,000-square-foot hotel closed in 2009 after decades of decline and disrepair.

Previous owners sold off its waterfront property and condos popped up along its perimeter, blocking its previously famous views of the Intracoastal. Many of the more than 260 rooms sat empty throughout the year.

With rotted ceilings and warped floors, Katica said appraisers estimated it would have cost $200 million to restore, and rooms would have had to be booked upwards of $600 a night to break even.

Preservationists tried unsuccessfully to save the hotel through a court injunction in 2014, but JMC Communities CEO Mike Cheezem was permitted to begin deconstruction last year.

Instead of bulldozing the hotel, known in its heyday as the largest occupied wooden structure in the world, Cheezem deconstructed it to salvage and resell the materials.

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 and sold most 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 — was removed board by board, nail by nail, to be resold by North Carolina-based Southend Reclaimed.

Cheezem will now begin construction on 132 condos and townhomes where the Biltmore used to stand, within the gates of the Belleair Country Club.

But in front of them all will be this salvaged portion of the historic hotel converted into an inn with an ice cream parlor, history room and event space — all carrying the Biltmore theme.

"There were developers on the one side who were proposing to tear it all down and build anew, and of course the preservationists were saying the whole thing had to be preserved, and it was just evident to us there was a middle ground there," Cheezem said. "There was a solution where you could preserve this incredibly important piece of history. It's a great thing for the town of Belleair because its identity is so intertwined with the history of that hotel."

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In April 1960, Al and Marcee Guffey danced during their honeymoon in the parlor of the Belleview Biltmore, and they returned on Wednesday, 56 years later, to watch the same structure move on to its next chapter.

The couple visited dozens of times over the decades and moved to a nearby condo in 2011.

When deconstruction of the hotel began last year, the Guffeys bought three of the dining room chairs they recognized from their visits decades ago, a light fixture and window panels from the hotel's ice cream shop.

They even had two feet of wood from the Biltmore's front step made into a cheese board. Marcee Guffey said it wasn't realistic to expect the entire hotel to be saved and restored, but saving a portion for future generations to visit is comforting.

"There's just so many good memories here," she said. "I can't tell you how precious it is to us."

Work to start moving the 38,000-square-foot structure began eight weeks ago, when Pennsylvania-based Wolfe House and Building Movers started excavating under the building to lay steel beams for support.

It took two days to lift the structure up four feet before workers could plant a layer of steel plates to prepare for the dollies.

The building was rotated 90 degrees to align with the foundation on the site where the inn will be built.

After the structure was rolled to the new foundation on Wednesday, workers will now spend the next several weeks lowering it and building the foundation walls.

Project manager Jamin Buckingham said his company has moved train stations, monuments and Alexander Hamilton's home in Upper Manhattan, but every historic project is unique.

However Rae Claire Johnson, a preservationist who fought to save the Biltmore, said she doesn't find much comfort in the Biltmore inn restoration.

She said the town should have allowed more time for residents to find an investor interested in restoring the hotel and lamented how a residential community being overun by condos is losing its landmark.

"We don't have that many historic structures in America to protect, and the few that we have I think we should," she said. "It made Belleair unique. Now that the building is gone, people are remembering it and trying to hold on to it which they didn't do before."

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