Friday, January 20, 2017

Our Gulfstream Hotel almost a year later: The Pennsylvania Hotel, the Belleview Biltmore, and what history teaches us.

Below is a blog post from last December, just as timely today at it was a month ago. Already read this? Thank You for visiting and please scroll down. 

Hard to believe it was just last January 2016 when City residents packed the City Commission meeting, standing room only, spilling out and down the hallway in support of the Gulfstream Hotel, all coming out on a cold, rainy night. That night was so remarkable a well-known and respected land-use attorney representing the owners of the Gulfstream said this:

I have to tell you, in 23 years I’ve never, ever seen so many people come out, leave their homes at dinner time to speak in favor of an application. It just doesn’t happen. People come to speak against, but people don’t come to speak in favor. So I am overwhelmed by the volume of people that have been here this evening.

To better understand where we are almost a year later, and what to expect in the future, the past offers some clues.

The Pennsylvania Hotel

This Palm Beach Post article from back in 2010 recalls the demolition of the Pennsylvania Hotel that graced the West Palm Beach downtown waterfront for just under 70 years. The article mentions it was once one of six historic downtown waterfront hotels that have all been demolished over the years. From a different age when transit to Florida from the northeast and the mid-west was primarily by train, then later by car via US Highway 1 (prior to I-95), they later failed to capture tourist and visitor dollars in the last half of the 20th Century.

Many times, as was the case of the Pennsylvania Hotel, they were converted to convalescent or assisted living facilities. This sort of use does little to add vibrancy to the local economy and the tourist dollars go elsewhere, to hotels that have larger rooms and more modern amenities.

According to the article there was an attempt to place the property and building on the National Register of Historic Places in the mid-1980s but that effort failed. It is important to note that even placement on the National Register will not prevent a demolition. The solution is to find an adaptive reuse of a historic hotel that is more in tune with the current market or find sensitive ways to expand the property so that it is capable of handling a higher volume of visitors with larger rooms and amenities to which people are accustomed in the present day. Unfortunately, those efforts are the exception and not the rule.

This picture was taken by me in 1995 during the initial stages of the Pennsylvania’s demolition:

The former Pennsylvania Hotel in West Palm Beach.

Note the exposed area near the foundation where a pool had been added sometime during the 1950’s. This was an attempt to keep up with the “Holiday Inns” that offered a pool in every motel throughout the land. The pool was an inappropriate addition historically and detracted from the look of the hotel, but another design or arrangement may have been more successful. We will never know now.

Many of you know upon moving to Florida from Michigan I served on the urban planning staff for the City of West Palm Beach. In fact, Mr. Rick Greene, the present day Director of Development Services was the person who hired me. During my time there worked with a Realtor representing a wealthy German client. That client wanted to purchase the hotel from the Carmelite Sisters for the Aged and Infirm of South Florida and return it to use as a hotel with appropriate modifications. That never came to fruition and the result was demolition of this irreplaceable historic resource.

The Belleview Biltmore

The picture below was taken last week and is an example of a partial success in saving one of Florida’s largest historic hotels, the Belleview Biltmore.

Architect Tamara Peacock (on left) in front of the original Belleview Biltmore structure, now undergoing restoration.

In 2015 I was brought in to do a Historic American Buildings Survey. I worked with a professional photographer who specialized in large format, black and white photography which provides archival quality images required by the Library of Congress; I wrote the accompanying narrative. We were there to document to the fullest extent possible the Belleview Biltmore and its history. An architect, Tamara Peacock, performed the as-built architectural record of the structure.

The Belleview Biltmore was a contemporary of the Royal Poinciana Hotel in Palm Beach, both gigantic wooden hotel structures, built by the railroad tycoons Henry Plant and Henry Flagler, respectively. The Royal Poinciana was demolished in the mid-1930’s.

Most of the sprawling Belleview Biltmore was demolished due to a host of structural deficiencies common to wooden structures. It also faced its fair share of issues such as economic obsolescence of hotels built in early Florida history. The good news here is at least part of the original structure was saved and relocated slightly on the site to accommodate a modern condominium development, consistent with the area surrounding the hotel property.

Part of the hotel’s demise can be traced back to a conglomerate that owned the property in the 1970’s and sold off parcels for development. The result was “walling off” the view of the water, Clearwater Harbor, for which the hotel was famously known.

The Gulfstream Hotel

And then we have Lake Worth’s own Gulfstream Hotel:

A picture taken early in 2016 soon after the zoning approvals from the City for the Gulfstream Hotel. Almost a year later not much has changed.

This historic hotel is also on the National Register and was last open about 11 years ago. And remember, being on the National Register is no protection against demolition. This structure has many of the same obsolescence issues as the two other hotels referenced above. However, it does have an existing approval for the restoration and rehabilitation of the existing historic hotel along with the expansion of the hotel and more parking provided on the western half of the block.

That approval is good through the beginning of 2017. However, if construction doesn’t begin soon the owners will require an extension of their approval or it’s possible that may be done administratively. Given that in a year’s time no work has commenced the justification for an extension should be something to consider.

There is also a lawsuit filed over the height of the hotel’s addition, ironically, one that is lower than the historic hotel itself.

Meanwhile, the calendar pages keep turning and the ticking clock stops for no one. This historic structure continues to suffer from a lack of preventative maintenance, daily upkeep, and stands a community eyesore, certainly not what it deserves given its once glorious past.

So the fate of our historic Gulfstream Hotel still hangs in the balance: either its renaissance or a date with the wrecking ball. At last year’s Street Painting Festival in February, the City’s iconic annual event, the mood was bright for the future Gulfstream Hotel. Hopefully something will happen soon to justify the vision and all that excitement, the overwhelming community support back then, and maybe offer residents a glimpse to a future New Year in the City of Lake Worth somewhat like what happened in 1942.

 Time will tell what has more value: The structure and its history or the land that sits beneath.

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