Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Hotel Belleview: A Retreat for Florida’s Gilded Age Elite

by Denise Weimer
View of the dining room in 1924

Were you aware that two competing tycoons opened Florida to the tourist trade in the late 1800s, Henry Flagler on the east coast and Henry Plant on the west coast? Each purchased and expanded rail lines following the Civil War and began building a series of hotels to beckon wealthy Northerners into the tropical wilderness. Even though I spent vacations visiting family in Central Florida during my childhood, I learned this interesting fact only after joining a research project with several other authors. How about a peek at Plant’s Clearwater retreat, The Hotel Belleview, the setting for my latest work in progress?

Less opulent than Plant’s Tampa Bay Hotel, the Belleview, which opened for the winter social season of 1897, still boasted a popular Swiss chalet style exterior, 145 guest rooms, a lobby-based telegraph, three electric lights in each guest room generated by a steam plant, and a resident orchestra performing daily. Originally 400,000 square feet, the inn was at one time the largest occupied wood frame structure in the world. In 1904, an east wing doubled the number of guest rooms. In 1909, the exterior was painted white and its roof shingled in green rather than red, earning the nickname, “The White Queen on the Gulf.” Further additions took place in 1914 and 1925, and The Belleview was purchased by John McEntee Bowman’s Bowman-Biltmore Hotels in 1920—with a name change to Belleview-Biltmore.

While guests enjoyed yachting, horseback riding, tennis, skeet shooting, bicycling, and swimming in the 1919 Olympic pool, a dozen cottages took shape on the 290-acre complex. These were constructed by the wealthy owners with the understanding that the hotel would assume ownership after five years, after which the owners could enter a rental agreement.

A unique draw of The Belleview was its golf course—purportedly Florida’s first. The original course, with greens covered in crushed shell, sand greens, and shelters with grass-thatched roofs, featured six holes. By the turn of the century, there were nine holes with sand greens. And by 1915, sportsmen flocked to The Belleview to enjoy two eighteen-hole courses designed by Donald Ross.

Today, only the original west wing remains. It is open to the public as The Belleview Inn, a boutique hotel surrounded by new townhomes and condominiums. Its grand façade still provides a glimpse of The Hotel Belleview in its glory days. Can you imagine ladies with pompadours sipping tea in the dining room surrounded by Tiffany glass? Couples frolicking in the waters of the bay in their navy-and-white swimsuits or waltzing at Washington’s Annual Birthday Ball? Keep an eye out for a story that will capture all of that, hopefully coming soon.

Represented by Hartline Literary Agency, Denise Weimer holds a journalism
Golfers c. 1900
degree with a minor in history from Asbury University. She’s a managing editor for Smitten Historical Romance imprint of Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas and the author of The Georgia Gold Series, The Restoration Trilogy, and a number of novellas, including Across Three Autumns of Barbour’s Colonial Backcountry Brides Collection. Her contemporary romance, Fall Flip, and her historical romance, The Witness Tree, both released with LPC this September. A wife and mother of two daughters, she always pauses for coffee, chocolate, and old houses! Connect with Denise here:

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  1. It all sounds very opulent. Thanks for sharing about it.

  2. That's a place I would have loved to visit. I've been to that area of Florida, but didn't know about the Belleview. My husband's sister and her husband lived near Clearwater. Thanks for this glimpse into the past.

  3. My pleasure! What a dream vacation it would have been, right?