Monday, December 22, 2014

A fond farewell

The Belle of the Ball... She was the stuff of stories, made not merely of timber and nails, but of magic, too. And like so many magical things, she has faded, forgotten, into nothingness. Known as the White queen of the gulf, for her exterior design, the Belleview Biltmore, near Clearwater, is to be torn down. Her frame adorned with more than a dozen gables, and nearly twice as many corridors, has withered beyond repair and will soon be put out of her misery. And yet, our memories of her will live on. The hotel was not merely a resort, it was grand adventure, like something out of a movie. Similar to the Grand Hotel at Mackinac, the Belleview stretched for what seemed like a mile from one end to the other. Built by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant the resort accommodated wealthy travelers who spent long holidays escaping from the harsh northern winters. Long hallways, offered glimpses of pristine lawns primed for lawn bowling or badminton. At the far edge of the grounds were tennis courts; a golf course paralleled the opposite edge. Two swimming pools offered guests a choice of lounging in the sun, or swimming laps in a glass ceilinged pool-house adorned with french doors that opened to admit a balmy breeze on warm days. Late at night, wandering the long quiet corridors, one could even envision the spirits of former residents sashaying through the building, dancing and drinking champagne, and being completely scandalous. Originally, the train tracks would deliver people directly to the hotel’s front door, and guests could step from locomotive car to lobby into the hotel’s lavish world of fine woolen carpets, and chandeliers, and grand pianos. Verandas decorated the property for a bit of fresh air in winter, and a respite from the heat during summer (pre-air conditioning). I stayed at the hotel many times. The most magnificent room was a suite that had not only a decadent king-sized bed with a sitting area, and a lavish bathroom, but also a dressing room. Imagine a room dedicated just to changing clothes and preparing one’s appearance, from an era when people lived for weeks or months at the hotel and so, entertained guests in the sitting room. I spent hours gliding back and forth in the indoor heated pool (prominent in the movie Cocoon), and strolling the grounds. There was an oak tree that was so large, one could sit on the lowest bowed branch, as it nearly kissed the porch. Six piano decorated the halls; no one ever complained if someone decided to plunk out a tune. Stairways zigged and zagged, and seemingly led to nowhere, and delighted children of all ages who had an indoor maze to meander. Did I mention the best coffee I ever had anywhere, was in that dining room? Grand ballrooms, elegant dining halls, afternoon tea, and cocktails in the piano bar were the offerings when I visited the Belleview. Small salons in the main hallway offered books, souvenirs, ice cream, and jewelry. Holidays brought families from all around the bay area to magnificent brunches that stretched through three of those ballrooms, accommodating hundreds of diners. Like the Plant Museum, the Belleview entertained the wealthy and famous once upon a time. In more recent times she entertained families and golfing enthusiasts. The hotel was the site for weddings, anniversaries, reunions, proms, and getaways. It never advertised because it never had to...until the time came when flash and deals won out over the old world wonder. However, it’s hard to keep up a building that suffers sun and wind and rain damage, and nearly a century of age. Several corporations and preservation committees attempted to save, protect, resurrect her, unsuccessfully. Sometimes money just is not enough. The Belleview will be put to rest. With her, goes a grand bit of Florida history and an age of golden revelry. Goodbye to Cocoon, to verandas,to vintage New Year’s Eve soirees, and to the best cup of coffee, ever.