Yesteryear at the Belleview
Photos/Text by Donna Malloy
Lobby Bar. This substantial counter was once the Registration Desk for arriving guests at the Belleview Hotel.
The guests arrived via train from points north. The year was 1897; the place the Belleview of Belleair Heights, Florida. Stationery from that time lists the Belleview along with its sister hotel the "Griswald" of New London, Connecticut.
Two years earlier, in the summer of 1895, 300 laborers descended upon Clearwater and began clearing the land of palmettos, oaks and pines under the direction of Henry Bradley Plant. At this time, Plant owned the Orange Belt Railroad and had purchased 1,000 acres of which would eventually become the location of the present day Belleview Biltmore Hotel. The railroad tycoon's goal was to build a 145 room hotel that combined travel by rail with an exclusive hotel that catered to the rich and famous.
Henry Bradley Plant, founder of the Plant System of railroads and steamboats, was born in Branford, Conn., the son of Betsey (Bradley) and Anderson Plant, a farmer in good circumstances on October 27, 1819.
Although his grandmother offered to send young Plant to Yale College, he was impatient to start his career and declined. At the age of 18, he was employed as a deck hand on a steamboat traveling between New Haven and New York. One of his many duties included the care of the express parcels. Finding this line of business in chaos, Plant seized the opportunity and effectively organized it. Not surprisingly, he was put in charge of the New York office and within one year, Adams Express Company promoted Plant to general superintendent. His territory was south of the Potomac and Ohio Rivers.
Fearing the confiscation of their Southern properties as the Civil War became imminent, the directors of Adams Express transferred their Southern properties to Plant. In 1861, Plant organized the Southern Express Company and became its first president. Acting as an agent for the Confederacy, his company collected tariffs and transferred funds during the war.
The end of the Civil War found the railroads of the South in ruin and bankrupt. Always seeing the glass half full, Plant again seized his opportunity. At foreclosure sales in 1879 and 1880, he purchased the Atlantic & Gulf Railroad as well as the Charleston & Savannah Railroad. He then began to build a transportation system along the southern Atlantic seaboard that within twenty years included 14 railway companies, several steamship lines and a number of important hotels, one of the them Belleview. By connecting numerous smaller railroads, Plant was able to provide continuous service across the state. One track led directly to the Belleview.
The train deposited its passengers and their luggage, mail and supplies at the south entrance to the hotel. The narrow double doors belied the grandeur that was to greet the guests as they entered the main lobby of the Belleview. What is now the Lobby Bar was once the Registration Desk. Here, as they signed the Guest Registry and were assigned a room, porters at the depot efficiently loaded their luggage onto a wooden cart. Once loaded, the cart road on the narrow tracks which terminated in the basement of the hotel, near the hidden staircase. The porters would then deliver the guests' luggage to their rooms and hang up their clothes, in plain sight but not to be seen. Each guest room was equipped with 3 incandescent lights, a fireplace with a polished cedar mantle and oak and cherry furniture.
Also downstairs was the private men's club, which included a barber shop, billiards, shoe shine service and a livery stable. The livery stable, which was connected to the hotel, remained in operation until 1950.
Guests had just enough time to freshen up after their long journey before "Tea Time" was announced. At the Tea House, the house orchestra daily serenaded their guests and "Tea Dancing" commenced.
If dancing was not at the top of your list of favorite activities, you could choose to golf, bike race, hunt, fish, horseback ride, relax on a yacht, skeet shoot or play tennis. The Belleview also featured a fully equipped gun club. In a letter dated December 20th, 1919, Room Clerk Frank W. Regan responds to Massachusetts' resident Mr. E.J. Noble's inquiry about golfing and hunting at the hotel:
"If you care for trap shooting, we suggest that you bring your gun," stated Regan.
Next Week: Coffee, Tea or Buttermilk Anyone? What was on the luncheon menu in 1914?
Out of Sight. Guests at the Belleview never touched their luggage once they arrived at the hotel. Porters loaded their luggage onto a wooden crate that rolled by rail into the basement of the hotel and would then be carried to the guests' room.
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