tampabay.com

Family recalls glory days at helm of historic hotel

The Bond family looks back on the Hotel Ponce de Leon, which stands as a link to days of celebrity and revelry.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL
Published June 8, 2005


ST. PETERSBURG - While reminiscing about the Hotel Ponce de Leon recently, Sam Bond Jr. ventured back to his youth.

"My earliest memories of the Ponce are of being a bellhop and an elevator operator at the age of 13 or 14," said Bond, who managed the hotel at 95 Central Ave. from 1978 to 1989. "The Ponce jackets were maroon with gold trim. I still have one."

Opened during the economic boom in the 1920s, the Ponce opened its arms to an ocean of tourists and baseball stars. Soldiers marched through the Ponce's door during World War II, seeking a place to stay while training in the Sunshine City.

Under the management of the Bond family, the hotel offered rooms and travel and entertainment for nearly three decades. Today the Ponce serves guests and stands as a lasting tribute to St. Petersburg's most ostentatious decade, the 1920s.

"When you ran the hotel in the winter, you were an ambassador for the city," said Bond, 56, whose family owned eight other hotels here at various times including the Bond and the Colonial.

As economic prosperity spread before the boom, James W. Cherbonneaux, the father-in-law of pioneer Mattie Lou Cherbonneaux, contracted to build the Ponce. The Mediterranean style hotel, opened in 1922, joined the Sumner Building as the city's only vertical structures. Until the Depression, a flood of tourists and spring training baseball players kept the 85-room Ponce vibrant.

In March of 1937 Circuit Judge John I. Viney settled a dispute between the Ponce and its neighbor, the Chatterbox, whose rowdy customers were reportedly disturbing the hotel's guests.

The Chatterbox couldn't "in any manner ... annoy the plaintiff in the use and enjoyment of its hotel property," Judge Viney ruled. A deputy was hired to enforce the ruling.

In 1959, the Bond family bought the Ponce from the Princess Mary Corp. Nin U. Bond Jr., boss at the Pennsylvania, became manager. "James W. Cherbonneaux gave us two fan-shaped rattan chairs when the Bonds took over," said Maxine Lee, 87, Mattie Lou's daughter.

In the 1960s the Bonds fitted the Ponce with modern windows, expanded room air conditioning, provided central television service and rebuilt 40 bathrooms. The renovations earned the Bonds the Silver Spike award in 1966 from St. Petersburg Progress Inc. The award represented the earlier removal of railroad spikes from First Avenue S.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, musicians A.B. and Mike and singer Rae Gruber ignited excitement at the Ponce's Down Under.

Through his wife, Mary, 80, Sam Bond Sr., 88, said the lounge was the most popular club in St. Petersburg. Bond Jr. said Down Under had a "easy feel with a walk-on-the-wild-side edge."

In 1981, a Ponce fire killed former Radio City Music Hall Rockette Betty Warfield. The eight-year resident, nearly 90, was found dead on her burning bed. "That fire was active for two to three hours," said Bond, who replaced Sam Bond Sr. as manager in 1978. "Her television and air conditioner melted. One room away, there was no damage."

Other famous Ponce guests included actors Christopher Reeve and Tony Curtis. And President Richard Nixon. "I shook Nixon's hand," said Bond. After Bay Plaza bought the Ponce in 1991 for $828,000, the hotel sat empty for six years.

"I have a lot of affection for the hotel," said William Bond Sr. from his Highlands, N.C., home, before remarking how in his youth he and his twin brother Sam Bond Sr. often fooled girls and guests with their similar looks. "I liked the way we ran the Ponce."

Yugoslavian-born Savni Bakrac bought the hotel in 1997. During renovations that year, Bakrac successfully sought historical landmark status for the Ponce. "For having such a beautiful building, I am proud," said Bakrac, a city resident for nearly 19 years.

Today the landmark features amenities including meeting rooms, an ice cream parlor, the Ten Beach Drive Piano Bar and Grill, and an Italian restaurant.

Recently, Maxine Lee had dinner at the Ponce. "I was very proud to be back in the hotel," she said. "It was just charming to get into that elevator again. It's such a dainty thing."

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