Photographing The White Queen of the Gulf – Belleview Biltmore Hotel
A Panoramic of the Belleview Biltmore Hotel in Belleaire, FL.
This is a two-part post. This will focus on the Belleview Biltmore Hotel and the next will focus on a photographer’s personal work, and the importance of that work.
I took a quick trip to Tampa this past weekend to photograph the now abandoned Belleview Biltmore Hotel in Belleaire, FL, which is in peril of demolition. I had the opportunity to hang out with RC Concepcion Sunday night and also got a tour of the Kelby Media offices while I was in town. RC was supposed to shoot the hotel with me, but a last minute scheduling conflict resulted in me shooting solo.
The Belleview Biltmore hotel was built in 1897 and is said to be the largest occupied wooden structure in the world. It is 840,000 square feet. That’s almost 20 ACRES of floor space! You can read more about the history on its Wikipedia page. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belleview-Biltmore_Hotel
How I got involved:
I stayed at the Belleview in 2009, just before they were going to close it in June for a 3 year, $100M+ renovation. I did not get to explore, but I fell in love with the ambiance of the old hotel. It just oozed history. I am a sucker for old buildings anyhow. The building was closed as scheduled, but the renovations never started. The poor economy is likely to blame. The property sat dormant and was finally sold in 2011 to the current owners. Many plans have been discussed and it is not clear just yet whether the building will be demolished (except for a small part of the original entrance) and be replaced with town homes, or if it will still see the floor to ceiling renovation it so desperately needs.
Around the time the current owners took possession of the property, I sent an email expressing my interest in photographing the hotel. I was contacted by a rep for the company and was told to check back in 6 months or so, once they had more of a game plan in place. Time went by and finally I was scheduled for March 5th for my tour of the hotel.
The hotel is located in Belleaire, FL. It’s a small community just outside of Tampa and Clearwater. The hotel is actually inside a gated neighborhood. Since it was near Tampa(home to the Kelby Media offices), I sent a tweet out to RC to see if he had ever shot at the hotel, or would be interested. He said he would love to shoot there, so we made arrangements to shoot on the scheduled day. Unfortunately, RC had to go into work for some last minute prep for Photoshop World which is only a few weeks away. I hated that, but I was unable to change the schedule.
I arrived at the hotel at 9:30, and I was scheduled to meet the company rep at 10am. I walked the perimeter while I waited to go ahead and get some of the exterior shots that I wanted.
Once the rep arrived, I was ushered in via the basement. This area was once used by the workers to haul suitcases and trunks to the rooms without disturbing the guests in the main areas. All of the hotel was accessible via staircases and passages in the basement.
We started in the kitchen. The few years of abandonment had already caused some ceiling tiles to fall, and you could see where the appliances once sat that were sold in a liquidation sale.
We then proceeded into the famous Tiffany Ballroom. All of the fabrics in the building had been removed to help prevent more mold from growing.
We then went up to the abandoned fifth floor, this floor was even closed off when the building was in operation. The roof has leaked for many years, and rather than fix the problems, the issues were just masked.
A few rooms on the fourth floor actually had troughs built to funnel the water out of the windows.
I had an excellent tour; I would have loved to have been granted free-range access, but liabilities and time constraints are very understandable. I may ask to go back before demolition occurs (if that happens) to see if I can capture more of the building. I would love to shoot video of the empty spaces.
Can it be saved?
This is the pressing issue, and the true answer is yes – with lots of money. Currently, a full and proper restoration would cost upwards of $200M. Demolition will cost roughly $1M. You can see the financial dilemma for investors. I truly hope that the renovation occurs, as I would hate to see this massive hotel razed. The entire hotel will have to be lifted to restructure parts of the foundation that have crumbled.
Part of the oldest section of hotel. If demolition proceeds it is planned to convert this section into a museum.
The hotel has been saved from bulldozers before, and the town is trying to save it again this time. Politics are fine and dandy, but red tape can be the death of a building like this. What they need is a buyer who is interested in saving and fixing the hotel. The roof is just going to get worse every day, and that plays a large part into Demolition by Neglect factors at play here.
My Photographic Approach
I knew that once I was granted access that it was a rare, if not one-shot opportunity. With that notion, I knew that I had to make the best of the time and access I was given. As I stated before, I love historic and old buildings whether they are pristine or one bump away from falling down. I approached the Belleview Biltmore shoot as if (for lack of a better analogy) these were funeral photos, and they would be the last representation of the building and the grandeur of better days. I wanted to convey a sense of stateliness, and showing how the building has stood the test of time, in hopes that it will continue to do so for years to come.
Thank you for reading this blog entry, I hope that you have enjoyed the photographs. I will be uploading more to my Flickr page soon and will post a link when they are live. So please enjoy these photos. They may be her last.
One of many abandoned corridors, this one on the third floor.
The back courtyard of the Belleview Biltmore
View the rest of the photos on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/edgewatermedia/sets/72157629113952476/