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Quiet old hotel speaks volumes of city history

In 1925, the Hotel Dennis opened in downtown St. Petersburg. And, boy, if those walls could talk.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 11, 2002


ST. PETERSBURG -- John Dennis Jr.'s memories endure like the letters he carved into the sidewalk fronting the former Hotel Dennis nearly seven decades ago.

"My initials are there," said Dennis. "I recall a lot of crazy things I did then."

From 1925 to 1942, Dennis lived at the Hotel Dennis. He remembers rolling silverware into napkins for pennies a day. He remembers the sweltering laundry room and the in-house printing press. He remembers his Uncle Nicholas surprising celebrities in the gag chamber, Room 310.

"It was an unusual period," Dennis said of his life in the hotel, named a local historical site in 1987. "Quite a place."

In 1925, Dennis and the Hotel Dennis were born. "I went from the hospital to the hotel," he said. But it had really begun, Dennis added, when his father and uncle came to St. Petersburg.

Nicholas Dennis, born in Greece in 1883, entered the hotel business in Constantinople. He later labored in some of America's major service establishments, including the Astor Hotel in New York. He came here in 1914 from Washington, D.C.

John Dennis Sr., born in Greece in 1890, arrived in 1916 from Valparaiso, Ind. He held a pharmaceutical degree from Valparaiso University and could speak and write ancient Greek.

Once together here, the brothers operated the Park Cafeteria owned by Edston Lewis at Third Street and First Avenue N. It was the first cafeteria on Florida's West Coast, covered half a block, and fed about 2,000 people daily.

"I rolled knife, fork, spoon and napkin over and over again there for 10 cents a day," said Dennis Jr., 77, whose playground then was Williams Park.

In 1925, the brothers opened the eight-floor Hotel Dennis at 326 First Ave. N. The hotel neighbored the cafeteria, had a restaurant and stayed open through the summer. "I remember seeing them tear down our house to build the hotel," noted Stella Masterson, 82, Nicholas' daughter. "(Nicholas) built his dream."

To beat competition, hotel employees greeted winter guests at the Atlantic Coast Line station. "There were more hotels than there are now," said Lyon Davis, 83, who lived near the Dennis. "People came down and stayed for two weeks or a month."

In season, four employees labored in the laundry room. Room 210 offered a printing press that rolled out menus and special event fliers.

"The hotel had barn dances," Dennis Jr. said. "There were bales of hay. Chickens, pigs, goats and a cow with a diaper around him. Guests dressed up as country folk."

Room 310 housed a mythical club that attracted local and national politicians and sports figures. Al Lang and Frank Fortune Pulver and baseball's Ford Frick and Babe Ruth were involved.

"It was famous for its zany initiations," journalist Paul Davis wrote. "Known all over the country. Stranger(s) might be startled to find a skeleton in the bathtub. You'd sit on chairs that might fall down" or offer strange noises or an electric jolt.

"My uncle was the joker," Dennis Jr. said. "Dad was the worker."

During World War II, recruits occupied the Dennis and every city hotel but the Suwannee. "The government stored our oriental rugs from the lobby," said Dennis Jr., who practiced tennis in the hotel's alley and became a Florida state champion (1941-1945). "By 1946, the hotel had returned to the family."

In 1962, Dennis Sr. retired. "I had to force him," said Dennis Jr., who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam and gave his share in the hotel to his father about 1964. Nicholas died that year; Dennis Sr. died in 1979.

Orlando real estate investor Terence McCarthy paid $525,000 in 1985 for the Dennis. "The hotel was more than I could manage," said Helen Dennis Fuller, 86, Nicholas' daughter, who helped operate the hotel until 1984.

Renovations were made on the new McCarthy Hotel, and ownership solicited year-round elderly tenants. "This will give (the elderly) an opportunity to move back into the downtown area," said McCarthy, whose rooms were about $200 monthly.

McCarthy sold the hotel about 1999, and for a brief period it was the Bay Park Arms. In December 2001, the structure was purchased by the RNK Corporation and became the Kelly Hotel.

Behind the Kelly's front desk hang the letter boxes that once served Hotel Dennis patrons. The original cage-door, manually operated elevator transports guests to 65 rooms. "About 70 percent of the furniture is original," said current manager Nancy Patel, 22.

Kenny Roux, 41, learned recently that he has been occupying Nicholas Dennis' celebrated Room 310. "I didn't know I had a famous room," he said. "It's been good to me."

-- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzel@msn.com.

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