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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.

"We are the living proof that a downtown resort is not an oxymoron," Russ notes. - click to enlarge

The Renaissance Vinoy - click to enlarge

Add to 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- click to enlarge
  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.

"The hotel 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 palace destroyed.'"

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 size."

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 doorstep.

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 room.

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 old.

"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."

Executive Chef Mark Heimann - click to enlarge
 Executive Chef Mark Heimann

Marchand's from the cocktail lounge area - click to enlarge
Marchand's from the cocktail lounge area

That 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."

Marchand's 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."

No 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.

"Our 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.

he team at the brunch: Amy Jordan is bottom row, second from left; Restaurant Manager Burt Thayer is center. - click to enlarge
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 - click to enlarge
Another super server: Cary de Graaf

One could 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
Web:  http://www.vinoyrenaissance.com

Photographs by Harvey Frommer

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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. More about these authors.

You can contact the Frommers at: 

Email: myrna.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Email: harvey.frommer@Dartmouth.EDU
Web: http://www.dartmouth.edu/~frommer/travel.htm.

This Article is Copyright © 1995 - 2012 by Harvey and Myrna Frommer.  All rights reserved worldwide.

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