A Blessed Building in St. Petersburg, Florida:
The Renaissance Vinoy
"The history thing can be a double-edged sword. People
hear history and think stodgy small rooms, the place where your
grandmother stayed. We need to stay true to our history, but we also
want to be sure to we are 'keeping that edge.' We want to surprise you,
to delight you with the atypical."
So says Russ Bond, the low-keyed and soft-spoken
general manager of the Renaissance Vinoy, from his green wicker rocker
on the arcaded loggia fronting the hotel. We're sipping iced tea and
looking out to the Bay of Vinoy. It is a Saturday afternoon in St.
Petersburg, Florida. The sky is cloudless, the temperature a blameless
70 degrees, and the palm trees in the garden below rustling in the
delicate breeze. Above us, ceiling fans are spinning lazily. Before us,
boats docked in the marina are gently bobbing; out on the water, many a
sail is aloft.
The weather and view may be typical for October in
southwest Florida, but the Vinoy is anything but. Rather, as the G.M.
would wish, it surprises and delights with the atypical. Set in the
heart of downtown St. Pete, the hotel is walking distance to parks,
shops, restaurants, museums and other cultural facilities of this city
on the rise -- the exceptional Museum of Fine Arts is practically across
the street. At the same time, the Vinoy is a popular 1200-member country
club boasting an 18-hole championship golf course and clubhouse on
nearby Snell Isle, a 12-court tennis complex, a multi-level swimming
pool, hot tub and waterfall complex, a 74-slip marina, a full-service
health and beauty spa with a 5,000-square-foot fitness center, five
award-winning restaurants, and 46,000 square feet of meeting space.
this list an array of contemporary comforts that includes 360 spacious
and well-appointed guest quarters with private balconies or patios cum
hot tubs overlooking gardens or the Bay of Vinoy, flat-screen
televisions, rich bed linens, high-speed Internet access, luxurious
bathrooms, and a staff of 500 to manage the entire operation, and it's
clear the Vinoy is, as Russ put it, "keeping that edge." Still, he
agrees, much of the property's distinctiveness and appeal lies in a
storied past that remains very much a part of its present.
General Manager of the Vinoy: Russ Bond
|Past and present merge in the
seven-story pink stucco palace that is the heart of the Vinoy.
Built in the Mediterranean revival style popular in the 1920s,
it looks today much as it did New Year's Eve 1925 at the hotel's
opening night gala. Arriving guests walked across the same
loggia we are sitting on this afternoon. They entered the
building through similar French doors, stepping into the long
and wide hotel lobby that still runs across the entire width of
the building, paved then, as now, in glazed quarry tiles, the
same pecky cyprus beams crossing the vaulted ceiling. From
there, they proceeded into the two-story, 50 by 125-foot Grand
Ballroom lined with Roman arches, topped with a barrel-vaulted
ceiling and set off with a proscenium stage where the Paul
Whiteman Orchestra played through the night. (In years to come,
Guy Lombardo and Peter Duchin would wave their batons over a
Vinoy dance floor as well.)
This Saturday afternoon a wedding ceremony is
underway in the same Grand Ballroom. In a few months, Florida's
governor Chris Cox will be married here. He uses the hotel as a
home away from home, we are told. At the same time, the ballroom
is still the site of New Year's Eve galas, the St. Petersburg
Symphony Orchestra having taken the stage for their fund raising
event a number of times as the old year gave way to the new. But
for the change in dress, a time traveler who wandered in by
mistake would be hard pressed to note the passing of decades.
But of course, much has happened since that opening
night nearly eighty five years ago. It has been a dramatic run for the
Vinoy, and a timeline of events is there for the viewing in the History
Gallery at the southern end of the lobby. There, overlooking the sylvan
Tea Garden -- a favored site for wedding ceremonies, a collection of
photographs, memorabilia, and artifacts trace the chronology of this
legendary property. The timeline begins at the height of the Jazz Age
when Florida was still a new winter destination for the well-known and
well-heeled and comes into the first decade of the 21st century. In
between, one passes through the 1930s when the Great Depression, to
guests wintering at the Vinoy, seemed no more than a distant rumor, and
on to the years of World War II when the hotel became a training site
for the Army Air Corps. It continues through the prosperous post war
era, to the 1970s when the hotel fell into decline and closed down, and
up to the early 1990s, a turnaround time when the Vinoy began a
renaissance worthy of the brand name it would assume.
Taking a solitary stroll along the History Gallery,
one can linger before a particularly evocative photo, an engrossing
letter, a 35-year-old menu, a description of a particular era, a
nostalgia-inducing collection of hand-colored period post cards. Or one
can join a group tour led by a local historian and discover fascinating
bits of trivia such as who checked in during the early days: Babe Ruth,
F. Scott Fitzgerald, H. L. Mencken -- to name but a few, or how the
octagon-shaped observation tower embellished with wedding cake-like
decoration that protruded from the southeast corner of the roof used to
be illuminated when the Vinoy was in season -- until there no longer was
a season to signal.
began going downhill in the early 1970s," Russ told us. "At the end, you
could get a room for $7 a night. But by then, the cachet of St.
Petersburg was gone. It was no longer the place to be."
The destiny of the Vinoy, he believes, was tied to the
changing image of St. Petersburg. It was also part of the larger
American scene, a time when jet travel and interstate highways had
opened vast alternate possibilities of tourism. Additionally, the 1970s
ushered in a more casual style of life as opposed to the "dressing for
dinner" ethos that had long defined the Vinoy. But most tellingly -- as
Russ indicated -- the decade was a period of urban decline when real
estate values tumbled, neighborhoods changed, and properties of
architectural distinction fell victim to neglect and often abandonment.
Fifty years after it opened, the Vinoy became one of
them. For the next twenty years, it languished, unused save for vagrants
who found shelter in its formerly palatial rooms. Surrounded by a
chain-link fence, the exotic plants and shrubs of its one time carefully
tended gardens overpowered by weeds, its glamour gave way to decay. Even
as it was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978,
there was talk of razing the beloved pink palace to the ground.
"Then it was decided to put its future up for
referendum," Russ told us. "It would be up to the citizens of St.
Petersburg to vote whether it should be kept or destroyed. And they
voted to save it, saying 'We don't want to see this big pink beautiful
That was the beginning of a years'-long long process
of complex negotiations and activity among financiers, city officials,
and federal agencies aimed at restoring the hotel. "Finally, in 1992, it
was taken over by Stouffer who put $93 million into the property and
brought it back to life," said Russ.
He went on, "One of the problems was that the hotel
rooms were very small -- typical for the 1920s but unacceptable in the
1990s. Accordingly, as the hotel was renovated, for every three of the
375 guest rooms, two were made. That resulted in the loss of 100 rooms.
But that was made up for by a new 100-room tower. You hear historic and
think small guestrooms, but every room at the Vinoy is of an acceptable
By the time Marriott took over the hotel five years
later, St. Petersburg itself was revitalized, in no small part a
consequence of the restoration of its "crown jewel." The Vinoy then
became part of Marriott's Renaissance brand. And a few years after
that, Russ -- who was working for the Renaissance in White Plains, New
York -- took over as general manager.
Now it's fall 2008. In town for the St. Petersburg
Book Fair -- an annual event that brings authors from across the country
to the city's campus of Florida State University -- we are staying at the Vinoy. It's also World Series
time. Big blue pennants are stretched across avenues all over St. Pete
celebrating the Tampa Bay Rays' winning of the American League
championship. This weekend, while Florida basks in glorious sunshine and
the Northeast is deluged with rain and wind, the World Series is being
played in Philadelphia. Too bad. The Vinoy is the standard host for
visiting teams from spring training all through the Major League season.
If a game were played here, we'd undoubtedly get to see members of the
Phillies around the hotel.
Nevertheless, it's a busy weekend at the Vinoy. We've
spotted at least four bridal parties, a couple of conferences are
underway, and we've met some interesting writers in for the Book Fair.
Beyond that, it is a splendid time of the year to be in this growing
Gulf Coast city whose manifold attractions are virtually at the hotel's
But manifold attractions beckon on this side of the
threshold as well. Dining options, for example, abound. There is the
comfortable clubhouse restaurant at the golf course, the casual
Alfredo's near the pool complex that looks like a tree house (although,
in an architectural nod to the Observation Tower, it's shaped like an
octagon), Fred's steakhouse -- a warm, wood-paneled dining room with a
club-like atmosphere, and the Promenade Lounge and Coffee Bar in the
lobby. But somehow throughout our stay, we consistently gravitated to
Marchand's Bar and Grill.
On the site of the original dining room, the hotel's
signature restaurant is a commodious space in warm shades of pink,
peach, and apricot, rimmed with a balcony that rises above
Grecian-styled pillars. During the day, light pours in from tall
windows. At night, illumination comes from glass bowl-like fixtures
framed with black wrought iron bands that are suspended from the
ceiling. Along with the classical hand-painted details on the ceiling
and along the frieze that links the line of pillars, they evoke the
1920's Spanish ambience of the original hotel.
But Marchand's is a 21st century destination
restaurant, comfortable, informal, staffed by informed and friendly
servers. Tables are large and well-spaced. The center of the room is
taken up by a huge cherry-wood oval-shaped bar and adjacent cocktail
lounge area which lend a contemporary intimacy that humanizes the grand
Mark Heimann, who in little more than two years worked
his way up from restaurant to executive chef, runs the entire Vinoy F &
B division which -- given five restaurants, extensive catering, and room
service -- is no small operation.
"Sometimes we'll go outside to look for executive
talent," Russ had told us, "but in this case, we felt Mark had done such
a great job working within, we had to acknowledge it. He knows how to
manage the kitchen and is very creative in the culinary arts."
We guessed Marchand's is Mark's most creative outlet,
but he demurred. "The restaurant chefs and I go over the menus, and
I'll make suggestions. But I leave it to them to exercise their
creativity," he said.
We met Mark at Marchand's on a Saturday night when
music from a jazz quartet was playing in the background. Young and burly
as a guard on the Bucs (albeit with a serious, almost studious air), he
told us he knew he wanted to be a chef from the time he was eight years
"I used to watch my German grandfather and my mother
prepare meals," he told us. "They weren't professionals, but they were
great cooks. And I knew I wanted to be able to do what they were doing.
So I went to vocational school back home in Michigan, then began cooking
in small restaurants, and then went on to culinary school. I never had
any doubt about what I wanted to do."
Chef Mark Heimann
Marchand's from the cocktail lounge area
assurance is manifest in the quality of Marchand's cuisine which leans
towards a Mediterranean style and makes much use of high quality
Floridian produce and Gulf Coast fish. "Our view is simple foods, fresh
ingredients," he said. "We want people to know what they're eating;
everything is recognizable, everything is identifiable."
restaurant chef Tom Kern -- who is committed to a running a green
kitchen as much as possible -- echoed Mark's attitude. "You can trust
our menu to describe what you are going to be served. Some places will
advertise Chilean sea bass whether the fish is from Chile or not," he
said. "We advertise what we are using. The sea bass we have tonight is
from Hawaii, and that's what the menu says."
problem. The Hawaiian sea bass was marvelous. So was every dish we had
at Marchand's for every meal. But if we were forced to pick our most
memorable Vinoy dining experience, it would be the Sunday brunch.
brunch is very special," Russ had told us. "For the past ten years, it's
been named the best brunch in St. Pete. We draw a crowd from outside the
hotel as well as guests. Some people come every week. During the season,
we are fully booked."
Small wonder. Spread out across the wide room are
stations and buffets with a staggering variety of foods of excellent
quality, expertly arranged and prepared. There are the standard brunch
stations where chefs prepare eggs, French toast, pancakes to order.
Also a meat carving station with roast beef and steaks (our superb
server Amy Jordan recommended the tenderloin stuffed with spinach and a
wonderful goat cheese); a sea food selection: oysters, clams, shrimp,
poached salmon over chive mashed potatoes with caper sauce, and a hearty
Portuguese stew; a salad bar with an abundance of Florida-grown
products; a lavish cheese and fruits station. There is the Tapas bar --
at its center, an enormous pan of paella is on the fire. Around it is a
selection of bite-sized delights: sautéed mushrooms and onions, cured
olives, marinated artichokes, a variety of salamis, slices of sautéed
eggplant. And from one's table, one can order a caviar tasting: Osetra
and domestic accompanied by finely chopped onions and hard-boiled eggs,
crème fraiche and blinis.
All the while, Amy pours Proseczo (the dry, lemony
bubbly from the Veneto region of Italy). She fills the glasses even
through dessert which is laid out on a huge station where chocolate
fondue with pretzels for dipping , miniatures pastries, cheese cake
shaped like a pyramid with little triangles, freshly baked cookies to
which one can add decorations making for an arts and crafts project for
the young at heart, crème brule, brownies, cupcakes with icing made to
order, key lime pie, and a selection of home made ice creams are there
for the choosing.
The team at
the brunch: Amy Jordan is bottom row, second
from left; Restaurant Manager Burt Thayer is center.
Another super server: Cary de Graaf
not imagine, let alone ask for, anything more -- not only for the
brunch, but the entire Vinoy experience. "We are blessed to have this
building," Russ had said to us.
Indeed, St. Petersburg is blessed to have the Vinoy!
Renaissance Vinoy Resort & Golf Club
501 Fifth Avenue NE
St. Petersburg, Florida 33701
Phone: 727 894 1000
Photographs by Harvey Frommer
# # #
About the Authors: Myrna Katz Frommer and Harvey Frommer are a wife and husband
team who successfully bridge the worlds of popular culture and traditional
scholarship. Co-authors of the critically acclaimed interactive oral histories
It Happened in the Catskills, It Happened in Brooklyn, Growing Up Jewish in
America, It Happened on Broadway, It Happened in Manhattan, It Happened in
Miami. They teach what they practice as professors at Dartmouth College.
They are also travel writers who specialize in luxury properties and fine dining
as well as cultural history and Jewish history and heritage in the United
States, Europe, and the Caribbean.
about these authors.
You can contact the Frommers at:
This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer. All rights