The Florida Land Boom was in full flower in 1924, and speculators cast their nets far and wide as St. Petersburg, like most burgeoning metropolitan cities, saw massive increases in business, trade and residential occupancy.
As Florida’s reputation spread, the city’s year-round population swelled to 50,000. Affluent hostelries for St. Pete’s wintertime northern visitors sprang up like weeds – 10 went up between 1923 and 1926 alone.
Among these: The Vinoy Park, whose name would later be shortened, the Suwannee, the Pennsylvania, the Soreno (demolished in 1992) and the Hotel Mason. The latter existed with that moniker for less than a year. As the 1924/25 winter season dawned, the Mason – at 411 1st Ave. North – became the Princess Martha.
A retirement apartment complex since 1990, the Princess Martha passed its 100th anniversary Jan. 4. TJM Properties, which owns the “premier upscale 55+ Community,” is celebrating the building’s centennial with an event Friday (Jan. 26) from 4:30 to 7 p.m. Company reps will talk about the Princess Martha’s lengthy history; there will also be guided tours.
For details, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (727) 894-6788.
Jan. 4 was the very day in 1924 the towering, neo-classical Hotel Mason opened its doors, heralding, according to the St. Petersburg Times, “the city’s final accomplishment toward providing for its pleasure seeking guests of this and future winters.”
Opulent rooms with private baths and hot water were big news in St. Pete. The newspaper published a 14-page “Hotel Mason Section,” selling ad space to the roofers, plumbers and others who took part in crafting the 10-story red brick hotel.
Constructed start to finish in just six months, the 252-room Hotel Mason cost $1.5 million. “No expense” was spared, from the Italian Renaissance lobby and mahogany walls to the Grand Staircase to the thick wall-to-wall carpeting.
Thousands of dollars have been spent to give the Mason and St. Petersburg hotel features which are scarcely rivaled among the tourist establishments of the south, the builders say.
Additional thousands will be spent during the coming season to give it service features which will not only make it a guest house of a fame beyond anything on the west coast thus far, but add immeasurably to the prestige which the city’s great new hotels are bringing to St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg Times Hotel Mason Section, Dec. 30, 1923
After one season, however, builder Franklin J. Mason’s “European-style” house of luxury fell into debt, and the place was snapped up by the Gulf Hotel Company, whose president, retired Pennsylvania oil man and banker William Wallace Muir, was a regular winter visitor looking for a reason to move south permanently. Muir reportedly renamed the hotel after his wife, Martha.
The Princess Martha opened in November, 1924 for the winter season; in December, Muir announced that it would henceforth remain open year-round. The hotel received 400 reservations for its first New Year’s Eve celebration, which featured dinner and a live orchestra playing for party-goers’ dancing pleasure, in the spacious and well-appointed lobby.
(“Big Bill” Muir would continue as president of the Princess Martha organization until his death in 1954, two weeks shy of his 103rd birthday.)
The Princess Martha was home for the New York Yankees during spring training (Babe Ruth, who frequented every watering hole and hot dog stand in St. Pete, was often spotted in the lobby). The poet Carl Sandburg was a guest, as was famed attorney Clarence Darrow.
In 1942 and ’53, the Princess Martha was commandeered by the US Army as housing for soldiers, thousands of whom were brought to the city to train along the bayfront in Florida’s temperate weather. The ground floor barber shop, beauty salon and restaurant were allowed to stay open to serve residents.
The nearby Soreno and Vinoy Park hotels were put to similar use.
Over the following decades the Princess Martha changed ownership numerous times, but the days of the grand hotels were long gone by the 1960s and ‘70s. First Baptist Church purchased the crumbling facility in 1977, but the going was tough and the church sold it to another aspiring hotelier the following year.
Although the Vinoy Park and St. Petersburg Beach’s Don CeSar – another opulent palace from the roaring ‘20s – fell into decay and were ultimately saved from the wrecking ball and restored, the Princess Martha followed a different trajectory.
Purchased in 1988 by the Gulfport Housing Foundation, the PM (as it’s affectionately known) underwent extensive (nearly $5M worth) renovations to transform it into a high-end retirement complex.
It was named a local historical landmark in 1995.
Clearwater-based TJM Properties paid $3.2 million for the property in 2011; the seller was WRH Realty Services Inc. of St. Pete, which invested nearly $4 million in building upgrades after purchasing the Princess Martha in 2002.