When I was 15 years old, a chance meeting with an elderly gentleman sitting on a green bench in front of McCrory’s on Central Avenue led to a turning point in my young life. As a result of the wonderful history lesson he gave about the history of St. Petersburg, I developed a lifelong passion for history in general.
When my parents came to claim me after shopping in McCrory’s, we walked down Central Avenue, and when we came upon the Detroit Hotel, I asked my dad if we could just take a quick look inside. When he said yes, I excitedly ran up the front steps, and when I walked through the door I entered a different world. Were it not for the people dressed in the style of clothing common in the 1950s, I would have thought I had entered a Fred Astaire movie. I may have been too young to realize the hotel may have been showing its age after 60 some odd years, but at the time I still thought it was grand. Thick carpeting covered the floor and gleaming chandeliers hung from the ceiling. In the rear of the lobby was a check-in desk of well-polished wood with boxes behind, where patrons could pick up their keys and perhaps a message. Several people waited for service, and well-dressed people sat on plush chairs and sofas, deep in conversation or just resting. The hotel had an elegant restaurant with white tablecloths and bent wood chairs. My father, who had joined me, told me of the many famous people who had stayed there. Among them, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Will Rogers and who, I wondered, was Clarence Darrow?
Although I walked past the hotel many times in the intervening years, it wasn’t until November of 1989 I once again entered the Detroit Hotel. I was greatly saddened to see the changes age had wrought. I guess I had hoped it would still be as I recalled, but time had not been particularly kind. Gone was the plush carpeting I remembered. In its place were bare, greyed wood floors that seemed to sag as I walked through the lobby. Chairs, tables and sofas had seen better days and dusty, tarnished chandeliers showed their age. The vestiges of a time when the Detroit was considered the Queen of St. Petersburg’s hotels could still be seen or imagined. The original reception desk, though also well-worn, still occupied the rear left corner of the lobby, with the original key boxes where patrons could pick up their keys and messages behind the counter. Four older men, some of whom appeared about as well-worn as the hotel, sat around a table in the lobby playing poker, and between hands spoke of their remembrance of better days when the hotel was indeed the pride of St. Petersburg.
Today, with rumors of a plan to transform the city’s First Block (the area between Second and Third Streets and First Avenue North and Central Avenue, which includes the Detroit Hotel building) into a 25-story residential tower, the history of this once grand hotel flooded my mind.
The hotel was built in 1888 by Peter Demens, who was also responsible for bringing the railroad to St. Petersburg, and so started our city on the road to becoming the flourishing community we know today. The Detroit was built as the result of agreement between Demens and General John Constantine Williams. General Williams gave Demens part of his land holdings in exchange for Demens’ agreement to bring the Orange Belt Railway to St. Petersburg. A story goes that the two men, Demens and Williams, flipped a silver half-dollar to see who would get to name the town. It is said that Demens won the toss and named the town St. Petersburg after his hometown in Russia, and Williams got to name the hotel, which was not a part of the original agreement, after his hometown of Detroit. Demens built the hotel for $10,000, of which Williams contributed half, or $5,000.
When it was first completed, the 40-room hotel stood literally in the middle of nowhere, on a dusty street with no other nearby buildings, save for the terminus of the railroad. It was built in the Queen Anne style of the time and stood threeand- a-half stories high, with a tower standing 70 feet high.
The Orange Belt Railway started offering tours to St. Petersburg in 1889, and advertisements began to appear in northern papers featuring the Detroit Hotel and the healthful St. Petersburg climate, bringing early tourism to town.
In the late 1890s a gazebo with a minaret was added, and around 1910, a brick addition with 63 rooms was added on the west side of the building. The year 1914 saw another brick addition on the east side. With that expansion, the original wood structure was encased by the brick.
A big hurricane struck the west coast of Florida in 1921, damaging many of the buildings and houses in St. Petersburg. The Detroit lost part of its roof in the storm, but the destruction was not bad enough to put the hotel out of business and it was not long before the damage had been repaired.
The Detroit closed as a hotel in 1993. In 2002 it was converted to condos, and is today a four story building. To prevent development of a proposed residential condominium tower on top of the Detroit and other important pre-1910 landmarks, St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman recently moved to designate the entire First Block as a historic district. However, this attempt failed due to a deadlocked vote in the City Council on Oct. 20, 2016. City rules prohibit council members from reconsidering their vote, however, Kriseman is continuing to look for ways to protect the history of the First Block and its iconic structures.
Let your voice be heard! Residents may contact the city council via email at firstname.lastname@example.org to share their opinions on protecting the history of St. Pete’s First Block and the stately Detroit Hotel.