The Vinoy: The Hotel That Almost Wasn’t

It is difficult at this moment in time to imagine St. Pete’s downtown without the Vinoy Hotel. It is the anchor of Beach Drive, a mid 1920’s Golden Age palace built to cater to the expectations and needs of the glam set that stepped off their comfortable Pullman train cars into the sunshine and limelight of St. Pete. Even today, the hotel sports an opulence that is impossible to deny. So with all that said, the hotel nearly didn’t get built — not because people opposed a hotel per se, but because of huge changes that would come with the vision of the owners. Let’s investigate.

The Vinoy hotel standing imposingly over shore drive as it neared completion in 1926.

A Family Affair

Before we get to the the Vinoy itself, let’s take a moment to discuss the visionaries behind it. The Laughner family was originally from Pennsylvania and was headed by Perry O. Laugher who had made a fortune in oil and gas field development. From time to time, Perry Laughner had vacationed here and enjoyed the excellent fishing and hunting around the nascent village of St. Pete. He started visiting around 1900 (in what might have been called pioneer times), but eventually made his way down permanently with son Aymer Laughner in 1919. While Perry’s age was advanced, he wanted to start a business that his son Aymer could carry on – and the two did just that. They started a property development company in the city focused initially on housing. It should be noted that building houses and then moving to bigger projects was a common trend in the Golden Age of St. Pete; for example the Don Ce Sar was built by Thomas Rowe who funded his hotel through residential sales first (read all about the Don here) as was Jack Taylor’s Rolyat Hotel which is now Stetson College of Law (Read all about the Rolyat here).

Perry and Aymer Laughner’s property development business was another example of the group of developers following this template. The Laughner family was quite successful, and eventually their sights would turn to something more grand; a hotel that would surpass all others in the St. Pete area. That vision began to materialize in 1923.

The Vinoy Vision

The vision of placing a hotel at the Vinoy’s present location was not a new one. In fact, Aymer Laughner, in an interview with the St. Pete Times in 1923 is quite frank about the idea, and discussed openly the reasoning behind the timing of the development. It just made business sense, and the hotel coincided with the growing high-class tourist market that had quite suddenly discovered the quickly growing gem of the west coast.

The property where the Vinoy was to be built had been owned by James Williamson, an early resident of St. Pete. His home was located on a double lot at the head of Beach Drive at 5th Avenue N. He had a commanding location due to the Park System which was developed to the south. Williamson also kept his property up to the standard of the city’s vision; he was an avid gardener and approximately half of the his double lot was a tropical palm arboretum of his own development. Residents and visionaries of St. Pete discussed the idea of a hotel on the site for many years prior, and in fact when Mr. Williamson decided to sell his land he placed a deed restriction on the sale indicating that the land would only be used for one of two things – a hotel or a park. Williamson was a ‘St. Pete First’ kind of guy, and these were the competing thoughts of the city regarding what might be best when Williamson decided to sell. While the idea of a hotel vs park seem totally opposed, it makes sense — we’ll get to it shortly. But first I’d like to discuss one of the fun yet historically inaccurate stories of the building of the hotel, one that is often repeated.

A Golf Shot That Wasn’t

Walter Hagen, golf legend, not driving off anyone’s watch

If you happen to have sauntered down to the Vinoy to take a look at the historical display they have set up at the west end of the lobby, or perhaps taken a tour of the hotel, or even heard through the grapevine, you might think that the hotel was inspired by a golf shot. As the story goes (keyword: story), golf legend Walter Hagen and the Laughners, specifically Aymer, were attending a small party at a house on Beach Drive shooting golf balls into the “vacant lot” across the street. A bet was made that if Hagen could shoot a drive off Aymer’s watch and not damage it, Laughner would build a hotel where the ball landed. As the story continues, that is exactly what happened! But unfortunately it is very implausible that there is any truth to the tale. Why? Because the interview posted above was written in April of 1923 and a) it flat-out notes the motivation behind the hotel and the lengthy public discussion of building a hotel on that very spot and b) perhaps more historically damning is that Walter Hagen did not get hired by developer Jack Taylor to design and manage the Pasadena Golf Club until December of 1923. Hagen only first appears in St. Pete at the end of ’23 — by this time the Williamson land had been sold to the Laughners and the hotel was already in motion. So sorry to, ahem, debunk that one, but no matter how you slice it the story was a long shot anyway. Pa-bum-Tssssss. Full disclosure, I do not doubt the two were associated eventually, there are stories of the two attending events in the same circles, but they probably didn’t meet until at least 1924.

If I were to offer up a hypothesis of how the story was started it would be this: The golf club on Snell Island eventually became part of the Vinoy resort. I am guessing the marketing department thought it would make for an interesting golf-related yarn weaving in a golf legend that would have without doubt inspired a few memberships. But that’s my guess so don’t quote me on that.

The Vinoy Name

We are slowly working our way to the drama, but the next thing everyone want to know is where the name Vinoy came from. Classy and imposing sounding, it is a unique and well-suited to the hotel. While many hotels in St. Pete have changed names over time, the Vinoy’s moniker has remained and I think most people find it fitting. Quite simply Vinoy’ was Aymer’s middle name. People who know the name was coined after the builder of the hotel think perhaps his last name was Vinoy, but not so.

I’d note that while the hotel was named after the younger Laughner, it was likely Perry, his father, who named the structure. Perry was still the main player (the guy with the cash) and the principal in the operation. While not implausible to name a hotel after oneself (Jack Taylor named his hotel the Rolyat, “Taylor” spelled backwards) it would have perhaps caused some eye rolling with the family if Aymer suggested it.

Speaking of the family, below is a picture of the father and son duo with the original owner of the land where the Vinoy stands just after closing the deal. Left to right, son and father, then James Williamson who was the original owner. Check it out – Everybody’s smoking a cigar on Beach Drive. Nothing changes, am I right?!

Finally, Some Drama

So here we have the Laughner duo who purchased the land where the Vinoy now sits in 1923, determined to build a fine hotel on the site. It had been talked about for a long time and the idea was not opposed. In fact, as we noted way back up there somewhere there was a deed restriction to build a hotel or a park. And let’s start there.

When the waterfront park system was being laid out, the master plan called for a fine series of parks from the south side of St. Pete all the way to Coffee Pot Bayou. Described as a gentle crescent with a sweeping view, the green space would go on undisturbed and in a unified way. Shore Drive would have been worthy of Hollywood. Take a look at the map I’ve posted here from 1919 – before the Vinoy – and you can envision it as well. But friends, there is a lot going on in this map we need to discuss, and it is really historically interesting!

The first thing, thinking specifically of the Vinoy project, is that today you can’t see from downtown to Coffee Pot along the shore because of Vinoy Park. And this was huge drama as the hotel plans came together. The Laughners wanted to dredge and create 1800 feet of new land into Tampa Bay. Here, they would put their own private park, build the north side of the private Vinoy Yacht Basin, and develop amenities like a pool, their own Yacht Club, and more. But this would absolutely ruin the original and as-of-yet incomplete vision of the St. Pete waterfront park system. By creating the fill the gentle crescent and beautiful sight line to Coffee Pot Bayou from downtown would be gone. This was opposed by almost every civic group in the city and nearly everyone felt it would be a travesty to destroy this sweeping and lovely view along the bay. Spoiler alert: Below is a map view from today.

As you can see, there is a rather impressive 1800-foot-long grey rectangle sporting a marker with the Vinoy’s location. So yeah, they did it. But let’s dig in. In 1923 and 24, over this now grey rectangle of still potential dredging the hotel almost wasn’t built. Drama ensued to the dissatisfaction of many.

When the Laughners bought their double lot, they also gained what is known as riparian rights, meaning that they could do stuff with the water that adjoined, out to, say, 1800 feet. This is how the original Fountain of Youth Pier was developed privately, along with the early private Brantley pier. Laws have changed and so has permitting, but back in the day you could kind of do whatever, including dredging your own new land. And the Laughners believed that to build an extremely high class resort that they needed a lot more property than just two lots — they would need to fill in 1800 feet of Bay as well. This was well documented in the papers, and the opposition was strong. So strong, in fact, that hotel almost didn’t get built.

Almost Sold Back to the City

So take a look at this article snippet and we see that by 1924 people were incensed about the fill. The public felt that the city commission exceeded its permitting authority (gasp!) and should never have approved the request for dredging. I mean, come on, this is still going on 100 years later! Friends, history repeats itself — the city is still ignoring the public 100 years later. Well, anyway. What we have learned today is the St. Pete commission has remained consistently tone deaf over the decades.

So the Laughners were a bit taken aback by the whole thing and didn’t want to be the villains of an entire city. So quite simply they went to the city council and offered to sell them the land back at market value. That was actually a pretty good solution, because it shifted the decision making back to the council who was already facing scrutiny. The Laughners simply said “Look, if we build the hotel, we need to legally dredge to create what we want. The city gets to decide what happens at this point.” But the asking price of $400,000, which was market price, was balked at by the council. They said the price was unfair. It actually wasn’t. It was based on comps from other properties just sold nearby. So then the Laughners went one step further and lowered the ask to suit the city – or perhaps call its bluff – and set a new price at $350,000. That was clearly below market value. The city still balked.

The Commission’s Other Big Mistake

So this doesn’t quite fit into our timeline, but there is one other mistake that was considered a huge one made by an earlier commission that made land available where the Laughner’s bought the Williamson property. Technically, that property should have never existed. Let’s revisit a bit of the map from 1919 I posted above.

Jogging. On Beach Drive.

Do you notice anything funky? Something that you might be able to saunter downtown and think about even today? Hint… a permitting error was made by the city in the very early days. It is such a big mistake you can see it on a map. Take a look and see if you can spot it.

Ok, ye of little patience – Do you see that funky little jog on Beach Drive at 5th Ave N? Why is that there? The reason why is way back before the Parks System got its start people wanted to build houses on the shore. The property was valuable. The original company that purchased the land north of Fifth Ave wanted to have lots on the waterfront. However, there wasn’t quite enough depth for standard lots on the water side because Beach Drive, which had been planned but not constructed, was going to be too close to the shore to build on. So the developer convinced the city to jog Beach Drive at Fifth solely so a row of lots could be subdivided on the water side. And the commission went for it. It is an error that created a jog that exists to this day. Wow! Who got paid off to do that?! And what does that have to do with our story?

Condemn the Lots!

So back to 1923 and our story – one other remedy proposed by voices opposed to the dredge operation proposed by the Laughners suggested that the city should use its power to correct the Beach Drive error noted above by condemning the lots on the water side east of Beach Drive and then using the land regained to fix the jog and move the road to where it should be, leaving the remaining land for the park system. This would solved the cash outlay problem, make the park system consistent and preserved, and still allow for a more modest hostelry – or park! – at the former Williamson property now owned by the Laughners. But alas, this idea was also not taken up by the city. So the Vinoy, dredged land and all, was built. The Park System was not completed to its original plan, but few would argue that we did in fact gain a towering and impressive landmark that hearkens back to the Golden Age of St. Pete.

You decide — below on the left is Shore Drive looking South (ironically from the top of the Vinoy) and its lovely gentle bend that was to extend all the way to Coffee Pot Bayou. This was the park vision those opposed where trying to preserve. On the right, a years-later photo of the vast fill that started with the Vinoy project that stopped Shore Drive in its tracks. Yep, that’s all fill.

All’s Well That Ends Well

The Parks System plan was modified and wraps around the Vinoy property. More dredging was done over time, and now even despite the hard turn to go around the Vinoy the additional park space that was eventually developed all the way to Coffee Pot Bayou is a public treasure that we certainly all appreciate.

As for the Laughners, Perry passed on just around the time the Vinoy was completed in 1926 and was buried back in Pennsylvania. Aymer Vinoy Laugher passed away in 1961 here in St. Pete and was also buried back in Pennsylvania. He left a family and legacy in St. Pete, along with an edifice that is unrivaled in the city proper.

The Vinoy was completed just as the Florida Land Boom was starting to fail, and rough times were going to come along for the hotel. But it survived, name and all, to the delight of many. It is now restored and is arguably the best preserved Golden Age structure in St. Pete.

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