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.

Pagoda Entrance which was added in the 80’s or 90’s.  It is hideous and I hope this part is torn down!

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.

The Grand Staircase that was once a main attraction.  This is the second floor landing.

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
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21 thoughts on “Photographing The White Queen of the Gulf – Belleview Biltmore Hotel

  1. A great set of pictures-followed the link via flickr….always great to hear about the history too. Please try to post more pics as and when you can. Fingers crossed they can save this lovely period hotel!!

  2. What a wonderful opportunity…thank you for sharing these pictures. I am a passionate supporter of the hotel, and hope beyond hope that these great photos will not have to be her funeral shots. Thank you very much for a glimpse into the Biltmore as she stands today!

  3. Wow. Thank you for taking photos that generations my use to see what may one day no longer be there. Have you heard that ghost tours were given prior to the shut down? That is how I came across the historic hotel. A&E’s celebrity ghost stories has a teenager report a 5th floor scary story.
    Do you think there is any way that the idea that the land will be “haunted” and not good for townhome living could save the hotel? Maybe the companies that were giving ghost tours could see that the money generated by a big ghosttour publicity could fund the millions of dollars it would take to reinovate the hotel? Sure they would need to get more money and believers but it seems that there are a lot of paranormal believers out there that might be up for it?

  4. Milla, I doubt any ghost story will stop construction or demolition plans. I believe a little could be made from ghost tours, more from people who just want access to the building. I just have a feeling that the small amount of income that would come from tours would not be worth the staffing / trouble to the company. They are more interested in a total plan for the area. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. I have been into the deeper nooks and crannies in the basement spaces. Some of those were finished in up to date materials and some in various stonework and brick. The attic spaces are examples of 18th Century framing. It is a delightful conglomeration of techniques.

  6. I just gives me the shivers to look at these intimate pictures of the old gal. I can instantly imagine the flurry of activity in each location, in its hayday, with workers scurrying around doing their job, and the guests wallowing in the ambiance all around. I only walls and halls could talk!

  7. What a shame to see it in such a state, in the states you have very little history and yet a building like this is let to go to ruin. It should not happen , it is a crime to let it happen Lets hope that before the end of the year the “money” people will see since and allow it to be saved.
    I sit here on a cold and wet Sunday night thinking back to the holidays we have had there the kids running about playing in the pool and yes having to change room because the roof leaked.
    Somebody please save it , it is to late once it has gone………. it will be gone for ever ….. I doubt a townhouse would have the same magic for my kids kids do you

  8. Mr. Davidson, I was wondering if you could contact me as I have a strange request. I have been in love with this hotel since I was a kid. I found every detail about its history and elegance intriguing and hoped to one day get married there. Sadly, I did not meet the love of my life until after it was shut down. Since you shot these stunning images this year, I wonder if I could get the opportunity to have my photographer get on the property to take photos of me and my now husband for our wedding album. We are planning a trash the dress shoot and it would be a dream come true to have some photos of us there. Would you mind sending me an email with your email address so I may send you my phone number? I want to see who you contacted to get the privledges to be on the property.

    Thank you so much!

    ~Marisa

  9. I stayed there in 2008 and fell in love with it as well, I wish I would have been able to spend more time and explore it better back then. I also love ghost towns and abandoned buildings, so it’s pretty neat to be able to see what just a few years without maintenance can do to a place like this. I have to admit, I’m a little jealous that you had the opportunity to shoot this, but also appreciative that you’ve shared these images with us.

  10. I grew up staying here during the summer with my youth group, what wonderful memories! I hope it is saved, it is a true treasure!

  11. Mr. Davidson – Thanks for posting these photos of the historic Belleview Biltmore. If you would like to see additional pics of the hotel, check out my website: http://www.BonSueBrandvik.com. BTW, our town is spelled “Belleair” and the current owners are trying to discourage buyers by inflating the estimated costs of a renovation. The cost of purchase and renovation was originally estimated at $120M and that is when the renovation was to include the construction of a new bridge/widening the entry to the property, a new 150 room annex hotel next to the original building, the purchase of a golf course and building additional facilities for golf tournament events, and purchasing the beach property and building a boutique hotel/cabana area there. Since the current owner sold both the golf course and the beach property, a buyer would now only be responsible for purchasing and renovating the 820,000 sq ft hotel, so the cost of renovation would be well below $100M. Less than half of what the current owners are touting to discourage potential investors. They want to demolish the entire hotel, saving only a few artifacts to be displayed in the club house of the condo/town home complex they want to build there. Those of us who love the hotel are working hard to find a buyer, but the financial market and the determination of the current owners to demolish are making that difficult. I sincerely hope the next time you are photographing the Belleview Biltmore, it will be during a renovation, not demolition. …BonSue

  12. I was glad to read that there is intention to at least keep part of the building to be turned into a museum. I guess my grief is simply compounded by the fact that such detailed elegance and exquisite balance in architecture is a thing of the past. New construction is, more often than not, lazy, cheap and tasteless. Turn of the century architecture demonstrated such true love, talent and passion for beauty. My heart is breaking.

  13. I love looking at these pictures. I worked at the Belleview Biltmore from the mid 80’s to the mid 90’s. I have walked every inch of the hotel including the basement and fire escapes… there were a summer nights when a few of us, employees sat on the roof and stared at the stars. Great memories of a grand hotel.

  14. 7-24-16
    I was flown from Pa. to Fl. to photograph a wedding back in the ( ? ) late ’90’s when the hotel was still beautiful and it was just being sold to a Japanese company I believe. It was majestic..! I still have the negs and have a file or two that I made. Parts of the movie ” Coccoon ” were shot in the swimming pool room.

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