Vinoy Hotel still holds special place in St. Pete’s history
By Rodney Kite-Powell
Long before the museums, high-rise condos and exciting nightlife, downtown St. Petersburg was defined by a unique kind of experience. Home to thousands of winter residents and tourists, St. Petersburg’s leaders touted their city to newspapers across the country as the place to visit. One of the biggest hotels, and a big draw to St. Petersburg beginning in the mid-1920s, was the Vinoy Park Hotel.
The hotel was the creation and namesake of millionaire Pennsylvania oilman Aymer Vinoy Laughner. Legend has it that the idea came about at a party at Laughner’s Beach Drive home in 1923.
The story goes that, on a bet, golfing great Walter Hagen hit several balls off the face of Laughner’s watch without breaking the watch’s crystal. The watch survived, and the balls landed on the waterfront property across the road. Party guests then goaded Laughner into building a hotel there with friend and real estate developer Gene Elliott.
Construction sped along with the velocity of Hagan’s drives, and the 375-room hotel was completed in time for a fabulous New Year’s Eve party in 1925. The elaborate hotel dazzled its early guests. The lobby boasted a 25-foot ceiling, and the grand ballroom was 50 feet wide by 125 feet long. Guests paid $20 per night for a standard room, among the highest hotel rates in the area (and roughly equivalent to today’s rates when adjusted for inflation).
The Vinoy joined what was already a frenzied building boom that raced across the Tampa Bay area and the state in the early to mid-1920s. The Gandy Bridge, which opened in 1924, increased traffic to the Sunshine City. And the Million Dollar Pier, dedicated in November 1926, gave residents and visitors alike a new destination along St. Pete’s burgeoning waterfront. Hundreds of hotel rooms, offices, apartments, and whole neighborhoods full of homes were added to the city.
If Florida history has taught us anything, it is that real estate booms do not last forever. This lesson was hard-learned toward the end of the 1920s, when out-of-state capital began to dry up and people became cured of their “land fever.” The Vinoy weathered the financial storm well, with the Laughner family retaining ownership throughout the land bust and into the Great Depression. Their hotel was still a popular destination for the rich and famous who retained both their money and their aversion to being cold during the winter.
In the summer of 1942, Laughner leased the Vinoy to the U.S. Army Air Corps for use as a training facility for troops headed off to fight in World War II. Air Corps crews gave way to cooks and bakers when the U.S. Maritime Service took over the lease. Laughner regained control of the hotel and, after extensive repairs, opened for the 1944-45 winter season.
That winter proved to be Laughner’s last as principal owner of the Vinoy. He sold the hotel to Charles H. Alberding, a Chicago businessman, for $700,000 (close to $9 million in today’s dollars). One of Alberding’s first moves was to double the standard room rate to $224 per week (around $3,000 today), which included meals.
Alberding reigned over a transitional time in the Vinoy’s history. Post-war tastes differed greatly from the pre-war years, and competition increased for St. Pete’s tourist dollars. Worse, the Vinoy ownership was very resistant to retrofit the hotel to accommodate a new modern necessity — air conditioning.
Laughner did not live to see his fabulous creation completely fall apart. He died on April 9, 1961, after a brief hospitalization. He and his wife, Stella, still lived in the Beach Drive home across from the Vinoy, and she did live to see the hotel’s inglorious end. The Vinoy closed in 1974, but not before the indignity of such things as having a volley ball court placed in the once-grand ballroom.
Despite its closed and increasingly deteriorating condition, St. Pete residents were able to secure historic landmark status for the Vinoy in 1978.
After years of false starts, missteps and failures, the Vinoy opened again as a grand hotel and resort. That rebirth, which began in 1990, culminated 18 months later in a grand reopening in 1992 under the Stouffer brand. The hotel was completely restored in painstaking detail. Walking into the lobby, through the halls and into the main ballroom is like journeying back in time. Rightfully proud of their past, the current owners have included a small display chronicling the hotel’s rich history.
Buildings come and go, often with little regard to who built them, what happened there, and what significance they had in the larger context of the city’s history. It is gratifying when some of those buildings grab people’s attention long enough to be noticed, cherished and saved. The Vinoy is certainly one of those buildings.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He and his wife were married at the Vinoy. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached by email at rkp@tampabayhistory center.org, or by phone at (813) 228-0097.
This postcard view of the Vinoy Park Hotel from the 1930s shows sailboat races in
front of the iconic hotel. Its location on the Tampa Bay waterfront is one reason why the hotel
has remained popular for almost 90 years. TAMPA BAY HISTORY CENTER.