In 1897 the beautiful Belleview Biltmore Hotel was erected overlooking Old Clearwater Bay by the famous Florida developer, Henry Plant. Mr. Plant’s influence is still felt throughout Florida; Plant City was named to honor him, the onion-domed, riverfront University of Tampa was originally built by Henry Plant as another grand hotel, and Morton Plant Hospital (named for Henry’s son) still provides state of the art healthcare for Florida residents. But of all Henry Plant’s contributions to Florida history, the one that holds a special place in my heart is the Belleview Biltmore.
The Biltmore is Florida’s largest wooden structure; some say that the Biltmore is the world’s largest occupied wooden structure…but I’m not 100% on that! Painted white with deep green trim, the sprawling hotel sits amongst an immaculately trimmed golf course, with sparkling views of the bay in the background. In its heyday, the hotel was frequented by Hollywood’s and Wall Street’s elite. As with so many of grand hotels, during World War II, the building was taken over by the government to house troops. Its thousands of windows were painted black, to avoid possible sightings by enemy ships at sea. But as soon as the war ended, the hotel reclaimed its prominence as provider of hospitality to the word’s exalted, including aristocrats, European royalty and U.S. presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.
The hotel has struggled to keep its doors open. Threat of demolition looms over the grande old dame like a black shadow. In 2005, it was barely rescued from destruction and enjoyed a period of renewed popularity when lower rates allowed more people to enjoy the historic property. In 2008 the Biltmore was host to the first (and only that I know of) TAPS-CON, which was a ghost hunters convention that showcased the teams of SyFy’s Ghost Hunters and Ghost Hunters International as the guests of honor. Over 1,200 amateur ghost hunters, fans of the shows and just plain curious spectators showed up for the event during the weekend of July 18-20. I was a happy attendee for the event. The level ticket that I purchased for my boyfriend and myself also provided us with a two night stay at the hotel. During the event, the hotel opened all levels for an all night ghost hunt on Friday the 18th. People could investigate the attics all the way down to the basement. It was an incredible experience.
One of the stories that we heard repeated during the weekend was that of a bride who was staying at the resort with her husband following their wedding. A day or two into their stay, the staff of the hotel had the bleak task of informing the radiant bride that her new husband had been killed earlier that day in a car accident. In her anguish at being left a widow before she could even get used to being a wife, the poor bride jumped to her death from the fourth floor balcony of her bridal suite. Today, people approaching the hotel claim to see the figure of a woman briefly silhouetted on one of the highest balconies before suddenly disappearing. Others have seen a form dressed in bridal vestments walking forlorn and alone through the upper hallways.
My favorite ghost story associated with the hotel is that of Maisie Plant, daughter-in-law to Henry and wife to his son, Morton. Around the time of World War I, Maisie lost a double strand of perfect pearls by the famous jeweler, Cartier. The necklace was rumored to be worth over a million dollars. In those days, that was a mind-staggering sum! The pearls were lost somewhere in the hotel…never to be found, at least, not that anyone ever admitted! Maisie is still looking for those pearls today. She has been repeatedly spotted throughout the hotel, from ballroom to balcony. And quite frankly, if I had lost such a bauble from Cartier, I would be haunting that hotel too!
Along with these tales there are a host of other supernatural phenomenon…including sighs, moans, doors opening and closing, elevators that are said to be out of commission that move on their own with their own agendas. There is a report from a local Clearwater ghost hunter who said he went to the “haunted tree” to do an EVP session, but I never could find a reason why the tree was haunted. The ghost hunter in question did receive a response, albeit a profane one, when he asked if anyone wanted to communicate, so perhaps the tree is haunted by someone with a gutter-mouth!
Sadly, the hotel is shut down until some time in 2012, for extended renovations. The golf club on the 160 acre property is still open for business, though! And since we all know that renovations bring out spirit activity in droves, maybe we’ll hear some new tales once this gorgeous hotel re-opens for business! http://www.belleviewbiltmore.com/