Rejuvenated Vinoy resort to toast a splendid decade

The resort will have a party - and you're on the guest list - to celebrate its renaissance.

By MARY JANE PARK
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 7, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- For a decade, the Renaissance Vinoy Resort and Golf Club has drawn visitors to the St. Petersburg waterfront for celebrations large and small.

The hotel opened on New Year's Eve 1925 and has been a fixture since, even as it sat vacant and in disrepair after closing in 1974.

A series of investors envisioned, then abandoned, plans to refurbish the property until the Stouffer chain engineered the $93-million renovation that enabled the Vinoy to reopen in 1992.

By comparison, initial estimates for constructing a domed baseball stadium -- now Tropicana Field -- were $60-million, although the totals eventually rose to $220-million after improvements and renovations.

The resort will celebrate the 10-year anniversary of its grand reopening Saturday. Activities, refreshments and entertainment are free and open to the public and include an exhibit by bay area artists, historic tours and birthday cake.

Relative newcomers may find it hard to believe that vagrants once took refuge inside the Mediterranean Revival-style building or that a generation of hometown youngsters tell of playing volleyball and other games inside the vacated grand ballroom, liberating abandoned files and trashing old hotel china.

When exterminators put up termite fumigation tents around the hotel in the spring of 1990, it was a sight to behold.

Those were elegiac moments for a once-elegant structure erected during Florida's boom years, when tourists flocked to the Vinoy for the winter season, swimming and sunbathing during the day, dressing for dinner and dancing through the night. The U.S. Air Force leased the hotel as a barracks for its trainees in St. Petersburg during World War II. Afterward, it regained prominence as the city's premier stage for social and charitable events.

The Vinoy's decline and eventual resurrection reflect other events in the Sunshine City's downtown.

"I think it made all the difference" in St. Petersburg's resurgence, Elaine Normile said of the refurbished resort. She was part of the reopening team and now conducts the Vinoy's history tours.

"I think the name of this resort now, being Renaissance, is so appropriate," she tells visitors. "Not only the renaissance of the Vinoy, but of downtown and the neighborhoods.

"After 18 years of being an eyesore and a liability to St. Petersburg, a place for people to break into and carry on, people just flocked here" (for the reopening in 1992), she said.

"We couldn't get the doors wide enough to let people in. Everybody was so thrilled to see it so alive and welcoming again. And it hasn't stopped."

In the years since, the resort has been host to conventions, charity fundraisers, weddings, proms and other festivities. It has been a temporary home for celebrities, including movie stars, musical performers and professional athletes. It acquired the old Sunset Country Club on Snell Isle, renovated the building and restored the golf course.

It added the $10-million Palm Court Ballroom, which can accommodate about 800 people and large events such as boat and automobile shows. A city referendum in 1997 approved construction of the convention center, which opened in 2000; the vote was required in order to change the use of the land from park space.

The resort took over management of the day spa and salon this year.

The hotel is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, and the resort and golf club have been accepted into the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Historic Hotels of America program.

Renovation of all 360 guest rooms will begin in October, said general manager Russell Bond.

"The owners continue to invest in the future of the Vinoy," he said. About $4-million will be spent on new furnishings, bedding, lighting and decor. Bond said the plan is "to make the rooms feel very residential ... to totally restore and bring our rooms up to date."

Vinoy Place, a luxury town home and condominium development next door, is a separate entity.


Window

A hotel reborn, a city revived

For St. Petersburg's hub, the renovation of the Vinoy 10 years ago was the catalyst for a revival of 1920s splendor.


photo
[Times photos: Kevin German]
The main tower of the Renaissance Vinoy Resort overlooks downtown St. Petersburg as the sun sets. The hotel will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its grand reopening with a free open house today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

By BRYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 10, 2002


 

ST. PETERSBURG -- City economic development director Ron Barton politely declined the salmon bruschetta Friday as he stood in the luxurious community room at the new Madison apartments in downtown St. Petersburg.

Orlando-based developer ZOM held a luncheon in the first finished building to celebrate and invited Barton and other city officials.

To Barton, the building of the Madison is a direct result of the rebirth of the Renaissance Vinoy Resort a decade ago.

"To me, it's amazing what results have come in 10 years in the downtown," he said. "The renovation of the Vinoy was a watershed in the redevelopment of downtown."

From 1975 to 1990, the big Mediterranean Revival hotel stood vacant and vandalized, a symbol of the deterioration of downtown St. Petersburg. Once investors spent $92-million to restore it, projects such as condominium towers, new restaurants, the BayWalk entertainment center -- and now the Madison apartments -- followed.

"Until the Vinoy was done, it was an obstacle to redevelopment," said Marty Normille, the former executive vice president of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership. "Whenever we'd pitch St. Pete to a developer, inevitably, they would say, 'What about that eyesore over there?' "

So the city had to talk about its renovated pier and the hope that Major League Baseball would send a team to occupy the new domed stadium the city was building, city development administrator Rick Mussett remembers.

Once the Vinoy was redone, it lent credibility to Mussett's pitch. In fact, the Vinoy was the ideal spot for prospective out-of-town developers to stay as they studied building projects in St. Petersburg.


photo
The cavernous lobby of the Vinoy, a Mediterranean Revival hotel that underwent a $92-million renovation 10 years ago, is elegantly illuminated in part by chandeliers.

The Vinoy helped to restore a relaxed and luxurious tone downtown, the atmosphere it had as a winter home for the well-off in its 1920s heyday. St. Petersburg had exchanged that image for one as a magnet for elderly retirees on a tight budget.

Mike Cheezem, the CEO of developer JMC Communities, said the Vinoy had opened the way for the Florencia, the luxury condominium high-rise his company built downtown in three years ago.

"It was a real big factor in our decision to build that community, the Vinoy's stature, its success, the quality of what they did, the clientele they were attracting," he said.

It helped his company sell the expensive condominiums.

"To be able to go there for dinner, to be able to put guests up there, all that is just a big plus in the minds of our owners," Cheezem said.

Mayor Rick Baker was formerly the Chamber of Commerce chairman.

"I have always felt that bringing back downtown was a three-legged stool: Getting the Vinoy renovated, bringing baseball downtown, and getting an entertainment center into downtown," he said. "The Vinoy really kicked off the renovation of downtown St. Petersburg."

The benefits have been more than psychological, said general manager Russell Bond.

"We have created an employment base for over 500 people and revenues of over $30-million a year that are pumped into the St. Petersburg economy," he said. "Shop owners on Beach Drive say, 'Your guests are always coming over to our store,' and our guests are at BayWalk all the time."

At the Madison, the apartment floor plans have names: the Gilchrist, the Frankland, the Tomlinson.

The most popular is a 1,518-square-foot, two-bedroom, 2-1/2-bath townhouse that leases for $1,695 per month.

It's called "the Vinoy."

If you go

The Vinoy will celebrate the 10th anniversary of its grand reopening with a free open house today from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

A parking shuttle will run from North Shore Park.

Staff will conduct history tours every hour on the hour until 2 p.m.

A reel of 1929 film of downtown St. Petersburg will be shown at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

Jazz band Allon Sams and Friends will play from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

20 local artists will show works, including images of the Vinoy.

The American Stage theater company will perform for children at 3 p.m.

The schedule

Saturday's planned events at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, 501 Fifth Ave. NE, St. Petersburg:

10 a.m. History tour, concierge desk.

10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Jazz with Allon Sams and Friends, Vinoy Grand Ballroom; book signing (52 Great Florida Golf Getaways) by Ed Schmidt, lobby.

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fine art exhibit, Vinoy Grand Ballroom. Kids' art show, mezzanine. 1990 construction film, mezzanine. Model room viewing, information desk. Artists at work, various locations.

11 a.m. 1929 film and narration, Vinoy Grand Ballroom foyer; history tour, concierge desk.

Noon. Mayor's proclamation, artists award presentation, executive chef's recognition; Vinoy Grand Ballroom.

1 p.m. 1929 film and narration, Vinoy Grand Ballroom foyer; history tour, concierge desk.

2 p.m. History tour, concierge desk.

2:45 p.m. Door prize winners announced, Vinoy Grand Ballroom stage.

3 p.m. American Stage children's performance, Vinoy Grand Ballroom stage.


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