Part I in a series: Grand Hotels of St. Pete
Author’s note: The mid 1920s were the Golden Age for St. Pete hotels. And rightly so; the roaring 20s were ushered in after the austere and difficult days of World War I. Attitudes on life had changed with a new focus on fun and excess. Exotic was in. Architecture of Spain, Arabia, and North Africa were the gold standard. Flappers, Jazz, and Champagne were the rage. Cars were prevalent, and new roads were being built. Florida was directly in the crosshairs for east-of-the Mississippi fun seekers as a newly accessible subtropical paradise and playground was being carved and filled from swamp and scrub. St. Pete was determined to cash in on the shift from agrarian and fishing economy to one where money came much more easily: catering to tourists who were ready to let loose. The city changed suddenly and dramatically in the first part of the decade, and just before the unforeseen crash of 1926 hotels modeled after palaces were being erected at a breakneck pace. This is a series of stories about those hotels.
You Don’t Know Jack, But You Should
Jack Taylor, a colorful investor from New York arrived in St. Pete in the early 1920s. Shortly after his sudden and conspicuous arrival he purchased 2,000 acres of land on the western edge of St. Pete from Walter Fuller with a vision of creating a grand development — in his words a “City Within a City” that would include every amenity and pleasure that a visiting sun seeker could desire. He named the area Pasadena (after the popular California resort city of the same name), and he immediately got to work. Like many developers he started selling lots in the sprawling development, and the proceeds went back into its continued expansion. With things going “well enough” for a while, Taylor purchased another two thousand acres from Fuller, and Pasadena stretched from The Jungle to Gulfport along Boca Ciega Bay.
Taylor believed that hotels played a very important part in generating revenue, and also inspired people to purchase lots and homes in the place where they came to vacation. To this end, he pursued a vision of building a grand hotel and Golf Course that would be “the finest in Florida, ‘Maybe the World!'”. Following his vision and going deeply into debt in the process, he started work on his grand hotel in 1925. The hotel would cost a cool $1 million (around $17m today), and the furnishings an additional $250k (around $4m).
The Rolyat Name & Design
To get it out of the way – The Rolyat was to be Jack Taylor’s crowning achievement, and the name he gave to it before construction began was his own surname spelled backwards. St. Pete would surely always remember Jack Taylor and his legacy! He envisioned a hotel that would transport visitors to Spain: a hotel with distinctive Spanish architecture and a strong Moorish influence. The architectural firm, Kiehnel & Elliott of Miami, designed the Spanish-themed hotel under the direction of project architect Paul Reed. The elaborately planned design would include replicas of famous Spanish landmarks, and the design was executed to perfection. Built around a 2-acre courtyard, called the Plaza Mejor, the hotel transported guests to another world; a fantasy where everything a 1920s socialite could desire was at hand.
A Grand Entrance
The entrance to the hotel grounds was (and still is!) through a grand arch that replicated, with very precise detail, the grand arch of the Alcantara bridge in Toledo, Spain. It led into the plaza, where other architectural wonders of Spain waited to be explored.
Take a look at the two arches above – the inspiration and the Rolyat’s version from 1926. Only one glaring difference – “Rolyat” emblazoned on the hotel’s medallion.
The entrance to the hotel was only the beginning, and the striking tower built as the central focus of the hotel is a stunning replica of the Torre del Oro in Seville, Spain. The original was built as a watchtower to control ships on the adjacent river; the Rolyat’s version was one to inspire romance and provide an outstanding view of the Rolyat grounds, golf course, and Boca Ciega Bay.
The Grounds, Rooms, and More
The central “Plaza Mejor” had one other building of note, a granary that was a replica of a common design seen throughout Spain. the round structure in history is used to store grain during peacetime, but could be turned into a powerful defensive fortification during periods of conflict. The granary, along with the replica of a typical Spanish church that housed the lobby of the hotel (see above with the tower) rounded out the public square feel of the plaza. The rooms of the hotel, 100 as built, lined the rest of the central courtyard, with many facing in toward the beautiful surroundings. No expense was spared in the construction of the rooms or dreamy architecture; flowing flowers, a magical wishing well, and large fountains rounded out the hotel. In this photo from the 1920s, a group of Spanish dancers were posing for a photo shoot promoting their performance, and adjacent, a popular couple who were part of the hotel staff posed at the wishing well.
The Interior: Just As Grand!
Jack Taylor wasn’t about to build what he envisioned as America’s most distinctive hotel without decking out the interior with the finest, most lavish furnishings, nor was he going to hire a staff that wasn’t specially trained to offer every guest an impeccable, world-class level of service. The simple yet elegant interior of the hotel was open and airy, with furnishings, art, and decor that were brought from Europe and other corners of the world.
Below, check out the Great Hall. Serving as the main dining room in the hotel days, the well-preserved room is now a central meeting facility for the Stetson College of Law.
It would of course be gauche to not dine on fancy dinnerware designed specifically for the hotel. This was the case at many of the top hotels in 1920s St. Pete.
Apparently the pirate theme was a popular one in the 1920s, and surely this Spanish swashbuckler would have inspired some conversation around the table. “Is that Jose Gaspar?” or perhaps “Honey, I have an idea for later…“
I am also nearly certain plates like these inspired an entire line of whimsical collectibles at the Franklin Mint, although I have no direct evidence of such.
The staff of the hotel was assembled from other hotels, mainly in California, and many were couples or families when they arrived. The staff wore Spanish-themed uniforms that helped complete the fantastical setting. They would have served guests like those in the next photo, who look to have been gathered for a function, perhaps a wedding around one of the fountains in the Plaza.
Fancy Hotel, Fancy People
St. Pete in the 20s was a mecca for sun seekers, and plenty of stars showed up to frolic in the subtropical playground. And of course, the Rolyat attracted quite a few famous people in the short time it was open. On opening night one of the fountains in the hotel was filled with champagne (of course) and famous folks came from all over. Babe Ruth was at the opening, along with other dignitaries and notable people. Other visitors included golf legend Walter Hagen, who worked as the club pro at the Rolyat’s adjoining golf club (now the Pasadena Yacht and Country Club). Conelius Vanderbilt III even paid a visit. Somewhat notably, Babe Ruth even returned to sign his 1932 contract with the New York Yankees at the hotel. Here’s the evidence!
Short and Sweet, Then Big Changes
The Florida land rush ended in 1926, a few years before the great depression. Many of these hotels that were seen as sure things and included the Vinoy, Don Ce-Sar, and others fell on very hard times. The hotels were often financed by lots being sold around them: a developer would purchase hundreds or thousands of acres, and start selling the plats of land to finance the hotels. When the land boom ended, the stream of revenue ceased almost on a dime. Taylor was highly leveraged in his development, and was unable to weather the storm. The hotel was sold after just three seasons, purchased first by Florida Military Academy and subsequently Stetson College of Law, which it operates as today.
Hats Off to Stetson
Sorry I couldn’t resist that one. Anyway, the college has done an incredibly good job of preserving the hotel and the buildings and spaces. Understandably, the spaces have been converted to be used appropriately for the school, but gently so. The campus is still at heart just as Jack Taylor built it in the 1920s. Taking a walk around the incredible campus is something that few people, even in St. Pete, know about — let alone tourists. That said I couldn’t encourage you more to do so. You will find an amazing glimpse into the grandeur of 1920s St. Pete, and at the same time be transported to medieval Spain. To think, it’s all just a short drive away along Gulfport Boulevard. Go check it out!
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