Discovering an old treasure

Published 8:42 pm Friday, January 24, 2014

I am constantly amazed at the treasures that are within a day’s ride from our home here in Southwest Georgia.  Occasionally, you know about these opportunities and just have never gotten around to visiting.  Sometimes, you never heard of the place and just happen to stumble across a real gem.
Such was the case of my visit to the Vinoy Renaissance Hotel in downtown St. Petersburg. It was such an unexpected surprise; I hardly know where to begin.
Aymer Vinoy Laughner was the person with the vision to build this magnificent hotel in 1925.  His home was located across the street from the present site.  He had as his guest the world famous golfer, Walter Hagan, who was hitting tea shots off the crystal of Laughner’s expensive watch.
Someone suggested that the 14 acre site where all the golf balls were landing would make a great site for a world class hotel.  Shortly after that, Laughner began buying up the property.
In the middle of the frenzy of the Florida land boom, construction began on the hotel.  Started in February of 1925, it was finished for its scheduled opening on New Year’s Eve of the same year.
The Vinoy Hotel, as it was called, was a winter destination for the rich and famous.  Celebrities of the time from Ernest Hemingway to Babe Ruth visited the grand hotel.
Calvin Coolidge was the first American President to stay at the Vinoy.  After his first meal he was asked how he liked it.  The president, a meat and potatoes type of guy, replied that it was a bit rich for his tastes.
The waiter then told him that he might find the employees’ dining room more suitable to his tastes, and he did.  From that point on, the president always ate with the employees of the hotel in their dining room.
The Great Depression and the collapse of the land boom hit Florida hard, but the hotel managed to survive.  World War II came along and the hotel was leased to the War Department.  The soldiers were pretty hard on the old hotel and it was sold for only $700,000 at the end of the war.
While restored as a hotel, the Vinoy never really recovered from the war.  By 1974, its rooms were going for only $7 per day.  Finally, the hotel closed, just a shadow of its former self.
For eighteen long years, the hotel remained shuttered.  Its rooms were occupied by the homeless and its basements by mosquitoes and alligators.  Finally, after over a dozen attempts, there was a successful plan to restore the hotel for its former glory.
In 1992, after a $90 Million renovation, the Vinoy opened its doors again.  A decade after that, it was substantially updated again.   It is a modern hotel, meeting all the demands of the modern traveler while retaining the charm of its original design.
Today, it is full of life, once again hosting celebrities from around the globe.  In a world that is often too quick to demolish the old to make way for the new, the Vinoy is an example of what can happen when vision, expertise, and yes, money decide to restore an old treasure.
If you have a long weekend and want to visit a new and different place, try St. Petersburg and the Vinoy.  I know that I’ll be back.

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