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Jungle sparkled as 1925 hotel boom's crown gem

Walter Fuller's elegant masterpiece entertained the country's elite until it closed in 1944, a lingering victim of the Depression.

By SCOTT TAYLOR HARTZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- In the 1920s, the Jungle Country Club Hotel entertained among others Al Lang, champion boxer Jack Dempsey, and henchmen for Al Capone.

It was "a scene of splendor," raved the press about the hotel owned by entrepreneur and historian Walter Fuller.

Documents from the state's Division of Archives, History and Records Management called the edifice "one of the most significant boom buildings in St. Petersburg."

Built in 1925, the hotel on 225 acres at 501 Park St. N was an upper-echelon haunt. "We had one of the swankiest spots of the time," Fuller once said.

Fuller considered the structure the crown of his Jungle holdings. "(It) was the centerpiece of Fuller's burgeoning empire," historian Ray Arsenault wrote.

During its two-decade reign, the hotel changed owners several times. The building became a local historic site in 1992 and is occupied today by the Admiral Farragut Academy.

In the 1920s, visions of Jungle grandeur struck Fuller. He constructed the shopping center Jungle Prada, had an airport there and owned the St. Petersburg Golf Development Co. (the Jungle Golf Course).

The course's clubhouse was razed to build the hotel. It was "the zenith of the building boom," historian Karl Grismer wrote. The Rolyat, Dennis, Pennsylvania and Vinoy Park hotels also rose in 1925.

"When I announced I was going to build the Jungle," Fuller noted, "Jack Taylor promptly announced he would build the Rolyat (now Stetson College of Law)."

On July 15, 1925, news of the three-story, steel and tile structure designed by Vinoy architect Henry Taylor topped the permit list. Fuller negotiated a $680,000 contract.

J.M. Lassing financed the operation, and Fuller pushed for a 300-room hotel. He settled for 100 rooms and filled them with exotic furniture that arrived here on a tug and a couple of barges.

The three-winged edifice featured a cream-colored stucco exterior and was decorated with inlaid tile, wrought iron and wood trim. Fountains glistened in a central courtyard, tiled in terra cotta.

The first and second floors boasted ornate, wood-trimmed open lounges. French doors prevailed throughout the hotel.

"It was typical Spanish structure," said Bill Cooper, whose father was the general superintendent for the hotel's developer, George Fuller Construction Co., no relation to Walter.

Opening day was Feb. 10, 1926.

Some enjoyed golf at Fuller's neighboring course, a par-72 layout inhabited with alligators. "It was long but not hard," said Cooper, 84. "A lot of artificial traps."

Guests watched boats glide over Boca Ciega Bay to the west. Mediterranean-style mansions captivated those looking north and south.

That evening the hotel became the "million-dollar rendezvous for the socially elite," the St. Petersburg Times wrote. "It sparkled . . . and was the social event of the season."

More than 250 guests were escorted to the dining room and greeted by Fuller and his wife, adorned in a pale-green gown and a shoulder bouquet of orchids.

Among the notables were Connecticut Gov. John Trumbell, W.L. Straub, Lew Brown and Al Lang.

Dancers delivered treasure chests containing dainty handkerchiefs for the ladies. Men received trinkets, and menus were flavored with golf terms.

"A new gem has taken its place in the bay section of the city," the Times proclaimed.

The hotel later offered access to horseback riding, water sports and flying lessons. It housed a radio station, WSUN's forerunner, that broadcast dinner music two hours daily.

"The building echoed the footsteps and laughter of voices of people like Babe Ruth, Jimmy Walker, Jack Dempsey and . . . quiet men who ran Al Capone's gambling ship off the gulf," the Evening Independent wrote.

In 1929, the Depression cost the Jungle king his dream. "I lost it to my uncle, O.C. Fuller, a wealthy retired banker from Milwaukee," Fuller wrote.

Local amateur historian Howard Hansen, 48, noted the hotel's economic woes: "It limped along . . . lasting longer than the Rolyat," which served about six years.

Commonwealth Life Insurance Co. of Kentucky assumed the hotel in 1935. That summer the structure was "entirely renovated and partially refurbished," the press wrote.

During World War II, 10,000 U.S. Army Air Corps soldiers tented and trained on the hotel's golf course. By April 25, 1943, they were gone.

The hotel closed officially on Sept. 11, 1944. "Signing of a contract (about $300,000) this year insured the transfer of the luxurious Jungle Club Hotel to the Admiral Farragut Academy," a school history recorded.

- Scott Taylor Hartzell can be reached at hartzel@gate.net

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