According to historic hotel author Prudy Taylor Board, the Vinoy was sparked as the result of a wager made between Laughner and 1920’s golf champion Walter Hagen. At a party at Laughner’s house on Beach Drive near the present site of the Vinoy, Laughner bet Hagen that he could not hit golf balls off the top of Laughner’s watch without breaking the crystal. Hagen won the wager. When Laughner and another guest went to retrieve the golf balls from the neighbor’s lawn, the guest commented on what a nice site the waterfront home would be for a hotel. The rest is hotel history.
The Vinoy came to be famous for its gourmet cuisine and famous guests. Sometimes these did not always go together. An early visitor was President Calvin Coolidge known for his simple tastes. According to hotel lore, he preferred to eat in the employees’ cafeteria rather than in the hotel’s fine restaurant. Other hotel guests of note included President Herbert Hoover, explorer Admiral Richard Byrd, novelist Ernest Hemingway, essayist H.L. Mencken and actor Jimmy Stewart, to name a few. It had not been documented if baseball legend Babe Ruth actually stayed at the hotel, but he spent a lot of time there and was a good friend of the Laughner family. The film The Break with Vince Van Patten was filmed at the Vinoy in 1995.The Vinoy continued as a luxury seasonal hotel (it typically operated from October to early April – there was no air conditioning) until World War II. During the war years guests stopped coming and the hotel was converted into housing for the Army Air Corps and later as an R&R facility for the U.S. Maritime Commission.
After the war, the hotel struggled. In 1945, Laughner sold the Vinoy to Alsonett Hotels, a hotel chain based in Chicago owned by Charles Alberding. Alberding at first succeeded in again making the hotel a success, but eventually found it a losing proposition. In 1972, Bob Reynolds, only 20 years old at the time, offered to buy the hotel from Alberding. Bob was a St. Petersburg native who had fallen in love with the hotel as a child and always harbored an ambition to own it. Surprisingly, Alberding agreed to sell it even though Reynolds only had $10,000 cash. A lease was drawn up with a six month option to purchase the hotel for $5 million. Reynolds organized as R.W. Enterprises with four partners. He then enlisted architect and city mayor C. Randolph (Randy) Wedding to draw up plans for the hotel’s restoration. Wedding soon also became treasurer and a major advocate for the project. But Reynolds and Wedding failed to obtain the necessary financial backing. In 1974, for the first time in its history, the hotel was closed. In late 1975, the hotel was reopened. In an act of desperation, rates were slashed from $50 a night to a mere $7. The once elegant ballroom was used for public dances, card parties, and even volleyball. But even these radical changes failed to keep the hotel afloat, and soon even the Vinoy’s remaining fine furnishings were sold to help pay bills. The Vinoy was again closed in 1975. It was not just the Vinoy that was in bad shape in the 1980s, but the entire downtown. The commercial wind had been sucked out of the downtown with the opening of Central Plaza on Highway 19, and the rise of suburban shopping in the 1950s, and the construction of Tyrone Mall in 1972. The last major downtown retail store, Maas Brothers, closed in 1991.
In 1978, the Vinoy was named to the National Register of Historic Places, making it possible for investors to obtain federal tax breaks. Craig McLaughlin, who was later a principal in the Vinoy’s restoration, recalls the project eventually received federal tax credits amounting to 25% of the project’s hard costs. In 1986, it was also designated a local landmark. Still later it was added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Historic Hotels of America.The hotel languished for the next 18 years. Horror stories abounded. One journalist wrote, “The hotel brings to mind Blanche DuBois, the faded beauty from A Streetcar Named Desire. She always depended on the kindness of strangers, who often did her wrong.” He went on, “This lady is a mess… Pigeons fly into the grand ballroom as vines crawl through the windows.” On one city-led tour in the late 1980s, potential developers walked in to find a nonpaying guest roasting one of the pigeons on a stick over a small fire he had started in the lobby. Standing water was a breeding ground for mosquitoes. High school kids snuck in to drink beer and play kickball in the ruins of the main dining room. At one point, the hotel was fenced in and patrolled by guard dogs, but the dogs got loose and ran about the waterfront.
Celebrated Times columnist, Jeff Klinkenberg, reported rumors of “at least one hungry alligator [in the basement] with an appetite for rodents and misplaced feet.”
In 1980, Alberding refused to renew the lease with R.W. Reynolds, and let new leases in succession with Gulfport developer Arthur H. Padula and St. Petersburg businessman Robert V. Workman and then J.J. Palumbo of Cincinnati. In 1983, Craig McLaughlin and B.B. Anderson of the B.B. Anderson Development Co. of Kansas then bought the lease from Palumbo. McLaughlin was also from Kansas, but was shortly to relocate to St. Petersburg. McLaughlin and Anderson teamed up with Bert Stephens, a former associate of Alberding and hotel operator, and Harold Geenen, retired CEO of ITT. Stephens enlisted the participation of Fred Guest, a well-respected retired stockbroker, investor, and investment banker from New York. Guest had been interested in buying the Boca Raton Resort hotel which Stephens operated. When that deal fell through, Stephens told Guest about the Vinoy. Guest came to see the hotel, and as he later reported, “immediately fell in love with it” despite its deplorable condition. Fred Guest became the principal public advocate for the project. They formed a partnership (except for Geenen who dropped out of the project), and began what some derided as “Fred’s Folly.” At the time, hotels were particularly difficult properties to finance. The fact that it was also an historic hotel, while offering potential tax and marketing advantages, added to the difficulty because of the special approvals required for construction.The partnership determined that in order to make the Vinoy a success they needed boat slips in the North Yacht Basin and city-owned land adjacent to Seventh Avenue for tennis courts, including most of Baywood Park. Baywood Park was a small park which included a shallow Indian mound adjacent to the Vinoy. Baywood was commonly considered at the time to be part of the waterfront parks receiving special protection in the City Charter. This included the need for a public referendum on any sale or long-term lease of waterfront parkland. In its zeal to accommodate the Vinoy development, the City Council contemplated an ordinance that would effectively redefine Baywood as not a waterfront park and avoid a referendum. Preservationists and others protective of the waterfront parks led by former mayor Charles Schuh, attorney Peter Belmont, and others immediately called foul and challenged the City’s decision in court. After Circuit Judge Mark McGarry ruled that Baywood was indeed a waterfront park, the Council backed down and agreed to a compromise. A referendum would be held proposing the exchange of most of Baywood Park, some other adjacent city land, and the submerged land in front of the Vinoy, for a little over six acres of land owned by the Vinoy that is now essentially Vinoy Park. The land to be ceded to the Vinoy was restricted to recreational use. But, the referendum also included stronger provisions in the City Charter clearly defining the waterfront parks and other measures. As part of a related out-of-court settlement, the City also agreed to enact a local preservation ordinance which was done in 1986. The Vinoy was among the first buildings to be designated local landmarks under the ordinance.
A referendum was scheduled on the swap for 1984. Shortly before the required referendum was held, the Vinoy partners had an open house. An amazing estimated 10,000 people turned out demonstrating both curiosity and the deep emotional attachment many had for the Vinoy. The referendum received overwhelming approval. In 1986, Guest, McLaughlin and Stephens organized as the Vinoy Development Corporation, with McLaughlin serving as president, and worked out another lease with Alberding. In 1988, the corporation enlisted the help of Smith Barney investment bankers to find an equity player to invest in the hotel and manage it. An agreement was secured with Stouffer Hotels and Resorts.
The 1984, a referendum included a provision that the boat slips must be built within four years. Despite Guest and company’s many efforts, they were not able to obtain sufficient financing within that time period, and another referendum was held in 1989 to sustain the earlier decision. The St. Petersburg Times supported the 1984 proposal, but opposed the matter the second time arguing that the boat slips could be added later after the developers obtained financing. The developers argued the reverse, saying the marina approval was necessary to obtain the financing. The boat slips were, in fact, something that Stouffer Hotels insisted upon. The 1989 referendum was also approved, but this time by a close vote. “The public was becoming tired of the delays and trust that the restoration would be done was eroding,” said McLaughlin. But the 1989 referendum cleared the way to securing Stouffer’s investment. The deal was closed on February 22, 1990. Restoration construction now began in earnest.
The developers and architect were fervent in seeking to restore the hotel to its original historic design. They sought to install new wiring, plumbing, and air conditioning in a manner that minimally infringed upon the original décor. The project was challenged by the lack of blueprints. According to McLaughlin, they had but a single sheet of historic plans to work from. When they went to replace the roof, they found not one roof, but two, with a water cistern in between. Local artist Tom Stovall and his two-man crew worked eight hours a day for three months restoring by hand the friezes, borders, and panels of just the dining room. Much of the work was done lying on their backs. While it was necessary to add some baffling over historic artwork in the dining room, the architect was careful not to mar it. It remains hidden to this day, perhaps to be rediscovered at some future time. The staff architect for the state Bureau of Historic Preservation closely followed the restoration. After it was completed, he said, “I’ve seldom been involved with a project that has spent this much time to restore the old materials, old designs, and finishes.” In addition to the restoration of the original hotel, a parking garage and 105-room tower were also constructed. The developers further acquired the Sunset Golf Course on Snell Isle to become a part of the hotel’s amenities, and famed golf course architect Ron Garl was enlisted to renovate the course. The Women’s Tennis Association was also convinced to make the new Vinoy their headquarters.
The hotel was officially reopened on July 31, 1992. Total restoration cost amounted to at least $93 million (approximately $158 million in today’s dollars). The hotel restoration was originally packaged with construction of condominiums to be located just east of the hotel. However, this did not materialize until long after the restoration was completed. In 2000, after still another referendum, the Vinoy added the $10 million Palm Court Ballroom (convention center). In 1996, the Vinoy was purchased by the Renaissance Hotel Group, headquartered in Hong Kong. Walton Street Capital of Chicago then acquired the hotel in 2005. It is now the property of FelCor Lodging Trust of Dallas, but still managed by Marriott.
The Vinoy involved the largest private investment in a St. Petersburg development project by far at the time. The investment was nearly 60% greater than the cost of constructing the Barnett Tower (now One Progress Plaza), the city’s tallest office building. For the most part, it was not new construction, but a challenging restoration of an historic hotel deeply rooted in our city. The community as a whole rallied to support the restoration through referendums and a myriad of other ways. As Craig McLaughlin said, “If this hadn’t been something the community wanted so badly, it would not have happened. They were saying, ‘We want our Vinoy back!’” Media coverage was incessant. It was the quintessential come-back story. The Vinoy was, and remains, an important part of our city’s sense of place, and a hard-fought legacy to be treasured.
(This is the first of a two-part series on the Vinoy. The next edition will explore the impact of the Vinoy restoration on the development of Beach Drive and the revitalization of Downtown.)