Welcome to this edition of Check-In Florida, a monthly look inside the finest hotels of the Sunshine State. This month, we're heading to the west coast to one of Florida's most historic hotels: The Renaissance Vinoy and Club in St. Petersburg.
A golf ball, a pocket watch, and a bet.
On a crisp Florida evening in 1923, Pennsylvania businessman Aymer Vinoy Laughner hosted a party which would change the course of St. Petersburg's history. As the party reached the small hours of the morning, one of the attendees boasted that legendary golfer, and fellow party goer, Walter Hagen couldn't hit a golf ball off the face of Vinoy's valuable pocket watch without shattering the crystal. A bet was made and Hagen - perhaps as well known for his partying as his skills on the golf course - proceeded to hit one shot after another off the watch without causing so much as a scratch.
|Laughner's home and site of the legendary bet.|
The next morning, Vinoy and his friend Gene Elliot walked across the street to retrieve the golf balls from a field of orange groves in which they had landed. The property occupied a beautiful piece of St. Petersburg's waterfront, and Elliot remarked that it would make a perfect location for a grand resort. While strolling through the groves, the two men met the owner of the property and inquired if he was interested in selling. Proving that indeed everything is for sale, a deal was struck on the spot for Vinoy to purchase the property for $170,000, and the men drew up a contract on the back of a brown paper bag.
|The Vinoy on opening day.|
It took only 10 months for Vinoy's vision for the neighboring patch of orange groves to come to life. The Vinoy Park hotel opened on New Years Eve 1925 with a grand celebration in the hotel's Georgian style ballroom. The venue was proclaimed to be the most beautiful room in Florida, and the members of high society in attendance celebrated well into the new year.
|Historical Photo of The Grand Ballroom|
Over the next two decades The Vinoy filled the role of grand dame among Florida hotels. The resort and St. Petersburg served as the winter playground for the rich and famous until the onset of World War II when, like many hotels around the state, the property was leased to the military to be used as barracks for training servicemen. Although The Vinoy reopened shortly after the war, its time fulfilling a patriotic duty effectively marked the end of the hotel's golden era.
|One of the old solariums and vintage "Augusta Block" bricks.|
The resort suffered extensive damage during the military's use from which it never fully recovered. Combine that with a more mobile population, thanks to the automobile, and The Vinoy soon fell out of favor with guests. The decline continued until the mid-1970s when the hotel - then a $7 a night boarding house - closed its doors, locking its rich history inside. For over a decade The Vinoy stood empty on the shores of Tampa Bay, occupied only by the homeless and three feet of water. The grand dame which sprouted from a field of orange groves, and was once heralded as the finest hotel in the state of Florida, was left for dead.
Although The Vinoy had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and also preserved by a vote of the people of St. Petersburg, in the late 1980's the hotel's fate was secured by the one thing it needed more than any other: An investor with deep pockets. Enter Fred Guest, a New York developer who, like Aymer Laughner before him, had a dream for this glorious hotel. Guest embarked on a $93 million makeover of The Vinoy - a huge sum for a single hotel in the late 1980's - and sought to restore the property to it's previous grandeur.
|The Lobby Then...|
The renovation of The Vinoy left no stone unturned. The "pink lady's" Mediterranean revival exterior was given a facelift. Rooms were removed in the main building to increase their size. A new tower was built to add additional guestrooms. The cypress beams in the lobby were taken down one by one, numbered, refinished, and put back into place. And the grand ballroom, well, she was restored to the beauty that captivated revelers on that New Years Eve so many years ago. The Vinoy emerged from its overhaul in 1992, restoring this important piece of Florida's history and setting in motion a renaissance of downtown St. Petersburg.
|The Lobby Now...|
The Vinoy Today
Almost 90 years after it first opened, The Vinoy of today is two unique hotels in one. From the outside, she would appear to simply be a well preserved historical building. It is hard to deny her age as she stands along side younger, shinier condo towers on St. Petersburg's waterfront. And yet, she still stands. A pink lady in all of her glory, dressed to the nines with a tower of her own which was once the highest point in the city.
|The Glowing Pink Lady|
Like her beautiful exterior, there are many reminders of The Vinoy's heritage on the inside, such as the cypress beams and vaulted ceiling in the lobby. The hotel's history gallery offers a glimpse of its storied past, which is apparent by merely looking down at the original stone floor. However, thanks to numerous updates in the years since it reopened, the interior of The Vinoy is a completely different hotel than one might expect if judging by her exterior alone.
|Marchand's Restaurant. Their Famous Murals Were Being Restored for the |
20th Anniversary of the Hotel's Reopening.
The lobby has recently been transformed into one of St. Petersburg's most popular meeting places. Several intimate libraries line one side of the room and are perfect for those looking to enjoy an afternoon with a good book, or catch up with friends over a cup of java from the hotel's coffee shop.
|Not A Bad Place to Spend an Afternoon.|
In addition to the libraries, the front patio of The Vinoy has become a landmark, mostly thanks to its fantastic view of the sunset. Of course, the main attraction for yours truly were the chicken and waffles from the patio bar, which could give that sunset a real run for its money.
|The Deck and The Chicken and Waffles. Who's Hungry?|
Easily the most remarkable addition inside The Vinoy centers around the place where it all began...the ballroom. While the original Georgian architecture has been largely preserved, the addition of an awe inspiring chandelier by Dale Chihuly has brought a modern flair to this historic space. Chihuly is the artist behind the famed ceiling at The Bellagio in Las Vegas, and his creation for The Vinoy is equally inspiring.
|Imagine if it had this in the 1920s...|
The modern version of The Vinoy extends upstairs to the guestrooms as well. Inside you'll find the all-important white duvet, a well appointed bath, and a comfortable seating area which might unwittingly result in an afternoon nap. While it may cost a few dollars more, the bay view rooms are well worth the upgrade, and if you're lucky you might score one with a small balcony to enjoy the famous sunset in private.
|Go ahead...Try getting any work done in this chair.|
The Vinoy has overcome more than its fair share of challenges to remain standing today. Perhaps the most enduring one it will face going forward is the need to strike a delicate balance between its remarkable history and the demands of the 21st century hotel guest. There is no denying the hotel's incredible story, however the legend of The Vinoy is from another era; one which pre-dates nearly everyone on the planet. To rely on that history alone would eventually bring The Vinoy to its knees, perhaps this time for good. No one understands this better than The Vinoy itself.
|Nearly 90 years of sunsets... Here's to 90 more.|
The hotel is proud of its history, but not handcuffed by it. By transforming into a historic yet modern resort, The Vinoy has struck that balance of maintaining the old while delivering the new. Its soul may rest well in the past, but the heart of The Vinoy is firmly in the present while the light from its famous tower shines into the future.
And it all started with a bet.
Enjoy Your Stay
Special thanks to the Renaissance Vinoy for hosting this edition of Check-In Florida. As always, all opinions and pontifications are my own.