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VINTAGE ST. PETE: The Vinoy Park Hotel

Bill DeYoung

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Contemporary opulence: The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club today. Photo provided.

1920s

The Vinoy Park Hotel was 52 years old when it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. In its heyday, the salmon-colored Vinoy Park was the center of opulence in St. Petersburg, the destination hotel for wintering northerners; the place, where the rich mingled with the richer and the snobs eloquently practiced snobbery and white-gloved etiquette.

In the 1940s, the Vinoy Park was leased by the U.S. military, first as an Army Air Corps training command center, then as a training ground for the Merchant Marine.

After World War II the soldiers, of course, moved out, and the Vinoy Park carried on, not quite as luxurious as it had been in the Roaring ‘20s, but still a must-visit for those vacationers who could afford it and, increasingly, a center for community activities.

 

When the Historic Places designation was bestowed, however, the Vinoy Park had already been closed for three years, the result of too many bad management decisions and not enough upkeep. Instead of movie and sports stars, captains of industry, oil barons and other assorted swells, the Vinoy Park was inhabited by rats (lots of them), pigeons (entire flocks), mosquitos (as big as hummingbirds, some said) and, in the vernacular of the day, “drunks, derelicts and vagrants.” Windows were broken and the grand, two-story lobby was caving in on itself.

To the North Shore residents who have to look at it, the Vinoy is an eyesore and a health hazard. And to the City Council, which wants to see St. Petersburg’s downtown waterfront redeveloped, it is a never-ending source of bewilderment … a fence that was installed three years ago to keep out vagrants and vandals works about as well as “a painted line,” grumbles a member of the North Shore Neighborhood Association.

St. Petersburg Times/June 1, 1980

The rise

In her book The Renaissance Vinoy: St. Petersburg’s Crown Jewel, author Prudy Taylor Board repeats an enduring legend about the hotel’s origin.   

By 1923, wealthy northerners with names like Guggenheim, DuPont and Pillsbury regularly wintered in St. Petersburg, arriving by train, preceded by chauffeurs who had driven their cars down to be ready when requested.

Pennsylvania oil magnate Perry Laughner had retired a few years earlier to a swanky home at 532 Beach Drive. But the Florida land boom was in full swing, and Laughner couldn’t resist investing in real estate, forming a new corporation with his son, Aymer Vinoy Laughner.

Music on the veranda, 1930s. Vinoy Renaissance Hotel.

In April, so the story goes, professional golfer Walter Hagen was attending a party at the Laughner home. The junior Laughner, Gandy Bridge developer Gene Elliott and the sports icon were on the balcony around 3 a.m., snifters of brandy presumably in hand, when Hagen was presented with a wager: Laughner and Elliott bet he could not hit a series of golf balls across the street, off the face of Laughner’s pocket watch, without breaking the crystal.

Challenge accepted.

The deed done, and the crystal undamaged, Laughner and Elliott waited until next day to retrieve the balls from the property of one J. P. Williamson, a scrubby acreage that extended east to the southside to the waterfront.

Someone – most likely Laughner – looked around and remarked what a nice spot it would be for a hotel.

And that was that. He agreed to pay Williamson $170,000, over five years, for the property. Next, the St. Petersburg City Commission agreed to vacate 6th Avenue northeast of Beach Drive, which Laughner needed for his plans, and permitted the budding hotelier to fill 1,200 feet of waterfront.

There was plenty of back-and-forth between the city and Laughner, some of it contentious, but a deal was hammered out, and Laughner secured officers and directors for his nascent company. Construction money was raised through the sale of common and preferred stock.

With architect Henry A. Taylor and construction engineer George A. Miller on board, work began in earnest on the Vinoy Park – concrete footings were poured on Feb. 5, 1925. The hotel would be complete and open for business on Dec. 31 of that year, Laughner proclaimed, just in time for the four-month winter season.

Taylor’s St. Pete designs also included the Jungle Hotel (now Admiral Farragut Academy) on the western edge of town; the Vinoy Park used a similar, Mediterranean Revival-style design, seven stories high, four wings, 375 rooms.

The Vinoy Resort Project includes besides the Hotel an apartment building, a Roof Garden, a Yacht Club and Yacht Harbor, a Roman Plunge and Bathing Pool, the Vinoy Shops, a Coconut Grove Tea Garden, a two-acre playground for children and a garage accommodating 200 automobiles.

Advertisement/April 18, 1925

Army Air Corps, circa 1942. Photo: Vinoy Renaissance Hotel.

The war

Only the fabulously wealthy could afford the $20 nightly rate, and they packed the place, top hats and tails, for the New Year’s Eve Grand Opening.

The Vinoy Park not only survived the stock market crash and the Great Depression, it thrived. Throughout the 1920s and much of the ‘30s, it was filled, from December to April, with the well-to-do. Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover were among the guests in these years.

To put things in proper St. Petersburg perspective, the municipal pier, a.k.a. the Million Dollar Pier, opened across the Vinoy Yacht Basin in November 1926; the Don Ce-Sar, as it was spelled then, would not debut on St. Pete Beach until early in 1928.

St. Petersburg Museum of History

When managing director Clement Kennedy left the Vinoy Park in September, 1941, to serve as a captain in the quartermaster corps of the U.S. Army, the writing on the wall became clear: War was coming.

Laughner took over as managing director, and in December told the St. Petersburg Times that the hotel was fully booked for the winter season.

The next June, during the off season, Laughner announced that he had reached an agreement to lease the hotel and grounds to the Army Air Corps for use as a training center. “I am coming in to help the city and our country,” said, after rounds of negotiation with the military.

The vacant, city-owned property northeast of the hotel became principal training/parade grounds for the troops.

The next year, the Vinoy, and the nearby Soreno Hotel, were leased as Merchant Marine training centers.

More than 100,000 trainees called the Vinoy Park home during this period.

The constant back-and-forth of many thousands of bootheels, as well as wear and tear on the lobby, dining room and guest rooms, left the Vinoy in somewhat less-than-luxurious shape when the boys finally departed in early ’44.

Laughner sold the property to Chicago businessman Charles H. Alberding for $700,000, and after repairs, the Vinoy Park re-opened for the December 1944 season.

The fall

The post-war years were reasonably good, but the Vinoy’s position as top dog on the luxury ladder was beginning to teeter. A resistance by management to add air conditioning did not help.

Postcard image

Guests were still coming in from chillier climes, but now they were middle-class families, driving their own automobiles down from Michigan or Illinois or New York. And there were cheaper – much cheaper – motor lodges, motels and beach lodgings to be had.

The Vinoy’s decline continued into the 1960s. By 1974, when it finally closed, room rent was $7 per night.

Festival of States parade, 1969. Florida Archives.

What followed was an 18-year battle for the old building’s future – deals and promises were made, financing fell through, shysters with big plans came and quickly went. The public weighed in via Letters to the Editor. The property was threatened again and again with the wrecking ball.

Despite the installation of a six-foot chain link fence, and a snarling nightly patrol of guard dogs, undesirables continued to get into the lobby, the ballroom and the dining room, and into the “annex,” which had originally served as living quarters for hotel staff during those long-ago winter seasons.

Dining room, 1980s. Vinoy Renaissance Hotel.

“The ballroom was the world’s largest pigeon roost,” New York developer Frederick Guest told the Orlando Sentinel in 1992.

Guest, part of a partnership that spearheaded and paid for the final, this-is-really-happening renovations, was remembering his first visit, 10 years earlier. “Half the (ballroom’s) ceiling was on the floor,” he said. “It was pretty depressing. Anything decorative on the walls had been pried off and taken home. Kids had partied in there, and there were piles of beer cans.”

Facade, 1980s. St. Petersburg Museum of History.

Added architect William Cox: “The condition had deteriorated to the point where if something hadn’t been done it would have had to be demolished. When a building is that close to the sea, it’s like a docked boat: If you ignore it long enough, it will disappear.”

Rescued

The $93 million restoration was limited to the hotel’s exterior and first floor public spaces – the lobby, main dining room and ballroom. The upper floors, with guest rooms, were completely overhauled. The original 375 were reconfigured into 258. A new tower, with 102 additional rooms, was added.

For two years, architects, interior designers and local historians took careful consideration to preserve or recreate the historic landmark’s original Mediterranean Revival design. The original pecky cypress beams, which were originally installed because they were impervious to pests, were removed, numbered, cleaned and replaced. The Pompeian frescos that so lavishly adorned the main dining room underwent meticulous restoration. The glazed quarry tile floor and the ballroom’s ornate plaster castings were all restored to its original grandeur, as well.

Historical Overview/Vinoy website

 

The Vinoy Stouffer Hotel debuted on Sept. 8, 1992. The following year, Stouffer was acquired by the Renaissance Hotel Group and the hotel was renamed The Vinoy Renaissance St. Petersburg Resort & Golf Club. The company spent $3.5 million on additional renovations in 2008.

Guest, 54, told the Times that negotiating with owner Alberding, who died in 1989, and with the city and the media, took its toll on him. Everybody had their own ideas about the Vinoy (the “Park” was no longer part of the name) and what should become of it.

However, he said, “I believed in a vision of what the hotel should look like, and some part of me knew what this hotel meant to the city … there are buildings, and then there are special buildings. This was part of the heart and soul of the city.”

The lobby today. Vinoy Renaissance Hotel.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. Avatar

    MICHAEL & JOANNE VONSTETINA

    May 27, 2021at10:35 am

    Thank you for this story about the Vinoy – having had a business in St. Petersburg I found this very interesting as I was too busy working to explore the local establishments.

  2. Avatar

    Rob Hooker

    May 27, 2021at3:35 pm

    Great piece on the Vinoy. But note that Grover Cleveland died in 1908. Unless it was his ghost, he couldn’t have been a guest.

    • Bill DeYoung

      Bill DeYoung

      May 28, 2021at9:24 am

      Thanks Rob. Grover Cleveland, Calvin Coolidge … I’ve been getting them confused since Junior High! Error fixed.

  3. Avatar

    Brenda Mento

    May 28, 2021at6:32 am

    Perhaps they could offer tours (for a fee) of the establishment. Tourists as well as locals could see how lovely the insides of these Grande Dames are! That’s what the Europeans do and guess what? There are usually lines outside to get in!

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