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Hidden History in Plain Sight: Inside the Artifacts of Belleview Inn’s Morton Reading Room

On display in the Morton Meeting Room of the reimagined Belleview Inn, this collection of artifacts pays tribute to the original iteration of this Henry Plant hotel first erected in 1897.

Prior to the long-awaited 2018 reopening of the historic Belleview Inn, local Gulf-coast Florida artist and historian Christopher Still spent an incredible three years traveling the country to learn as much as he could about the Gilded Age hotel and its original owner: railroad and steamship magnate Henry Plant.

Along the way, he amassed quite a collection of artifacts – hundreds, actually, including documents, photos, and other relics, many of which he captured in “Queen of the Gulf,” his 72-by-60-inch oil painting that hangs in the inn’s lobby. But that doesn’t mean that after Still completed the painting, the items went into storage, never to see the light of day again. In fact, you can see a number of these physical artifacts on display within the inn’s Morton Reading Room, a wood-paneled study and a nice place on property to slink away with a glass of wine. So, as you sip, here are a few of the more interesting objects – and stories behind them – to turn your attention to.

Tarpon Rod & Reel (c. 1940)

The first tarpon, landed by rod and reel in 1885, made international news and put Southwest Florida on the map as the epicenter for sportfishing. Nicknamed the “Silver King,” the fish proved to be a mighty adversary, weighing upwards of 200 pounds (the world record is 286 pounds, 9 ounces) and known for its feisty attitude and ability to jump as high as 10 feet out of the water. So what does the fish – and respective rod and reel on display in the reading room – have to do with Belleview Inn…other than its Southwest Florida location? Tarpons figured prominently in early advertising campaigns for Plant’s Gulf Coast hotels, luring fisherman looking to test their mettle against the elusive fish.

Edison Bulb in Antique Socket

Thomas Edison, one of Southwest Florida’s most notable winter residents, was a frequent guest of the hotel. In fact, he was instrumental in the installation of electricity at Plant’s other Gulf Coast hotel, the Tampa Bay Hotel (now home to the Henry B. Plant Museum), and was believed to have been involved in bringing electric lights to the original iteration of Belleview Inn as well. Today, Belleview is the only hotel built by Henry Plant that still operates as a hotel.

Toy Soldier with Flag

Once a luxury retreat for the likes of the Du Ponts and Vanderbilts, the hotel was requisitioned by the United States Army Air Corps (the precursor to the U.S. Air Force) during World War II as a barracks for airmen training at nearby airfields. The hotel was completely restored when the war ended and reopened as a hotel in 1947. Each year in January, a flag ceremony was held to commemorate the opening of the winter tourist season.

Front Desk Bell

During its heyday, the 885,000-square-foot Belleview Hotel was believed to be the largest occupied wood-frame structure in the world. Today, just 38,000 square feet of the original hotel remain, but even that, itself, is a miracle given that the hotel faced multiple demolition proposals prior to JMC Communities, a St. Petersburg–based property developer, swooping in to save it. For that reason, it was JMC’s mission to go the distance to preserve and restore the building and its surrounding 35 rooms back to its original grandeur as much as possible. In fact, the lobby is still column-free and totally unobstructed as Plant prescribed it to be – an impressive feat owed to the massive trusses hidden in the walls. This nineteenth-century lobby bell stands for that love of labor.

Mumm Champagne Bottle and Chiller

This old champagne bottle, found in the basement of the hotel during renovations, speaks to the many weddings and social events that took place at the hotel over the years. While intended to be less elegant than Plant’s nearby Tampa Bay Hotel, The Hotel Belleview (as it was called when it first opened in 1897) was nonetheless resplendent, with intricate gingerbread-house details, the latest amenities, and even its own house orchestra. Plant’s son, Morton (who the reading room is named after), made further improvements to the “White Queen on the Gulf,” including an Olympic-sized swimming pool trimmed in Italian tile and two 18-hole Donald Ross–designed golf courses.

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