Amid the hip rancor of Ybor City and from the ashes of a long-closed clinic rises the bay area's most expensive hotel.
By BABITA PERSAUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 6, 2000
TAMPA -- Each room comes with Indian cotton robes, white slippers, fresh-cut flowers, homemade baked goods. A crystal chandelier drops from the center. A Persian rug lies on the floor.
Guests have a choice: two queen-size, sleigh beds or a four-post king.
A chef is available 24 hours. And come March, so will a butler, who will unpack bags, hang clothes, iron, shine shoes and when he's finished shining "put tissue in your shoes," said Jack Shiver, owner of the recently opened Don Vicente de Ybor Historic Inn.
"If you go to the Trump Plaza, you're not going to get that service," Shiver said. "Everything here is first quality. When you go to the bathroom and wipe your hands, you wipe on cloth. We don't use paper towels."
At $325 a night, it is the most expensive hotel in Tampa. Higher than the four-star Hyatt Regency Westshore, which charges up to $250 a night. Higher than the newly built Marriott Waterside, $235 a night, and the Wyndham Westshore, $285.
In fact, $325 will buy a room with a Jacuzzi at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City during peak season. The Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa in St. Pete Beach charges up to $369 a room, and that's with a view of the Gulf of Mexico.
At the Ybor Don, on the corner of Ninth Avenue and 14th Street, guests get a view of the Hillsborough Community College student parking lot and construction at Ybor Square. But it's a short walk to Ybor's nightlife, and you can keep the robe and slippers when you check out.
Shiver pumped $2.7-million into renovating the old A.A. Gonzalez Clinic, the birthplace of many older Tampa residents, and turning it into the 16-room luxury inn.
The lobby is called the "Grand Salon." The staircase is called the "Grand Staircase." Gold is the color guests see as they enter through a gold-handled glass door. There are gold fringes on the long, green-velvet drapes; gold cushions on guilded armchairs; gold frames on the oil painting of nymphs and goddesses.
The opulence is exactly what Shiver wanted. His business card is gold-embossed.
"We're not looking for the average traveler," he said.
Executives with Red Baron Pizza, one of the sponsors of this January's Gasparilla, have booked the entire inn for Super Bowl week. Other than that, the vacancy sign hangs.
Placing a luxury hotel in party-hardy Ybor may seem risky, but Shiver isn't worried. With nearly $49-million spent to develop the Centro Ybor entertainment complex, and with $33-million invested in nearby luxury apartments, he thinks the odds are in his favor.
"They bet like I bet," he said of the Centro Ybor and apartment developers. "There is no doubt this will be a tremendous success."
He's already planning two other inns in Ybor.
One at 1601 Seventh Ave., above the Rare Olive, will have seven kitchen suites renting for $250 to $375 a night. You can sit on a four-post bed, look through the window and see Centro Ybor. It's scheduled to open in 10 days.
The other inn is five years down the road, in a 32,000-square-foot building near Shiver's penthouse home on Seventh Avenue.
The son of a firefighter, Shiver, 56, grew up in Tampa, and worked for IBM in Atlanta in marketing management before financing his first Ybor purchase in 1989, the Gutierrez building.
The Don Vicente building, built in 1895 by Vicente Martinez Ybor, is where the architects plotted Ybor City. In 1935 it became the A.A. Gonzalez Clinic, where 75 cents took care of basic health needs such as shots. The clinic closed in 1968.
When Shiver bought it "you could stand in the basement and look out the roof," he said. According to public records, the sale price was $475,000.
Although the hotel is named after the famed cigar maker of Ybor, a lot of the Don Vicente is about Shiver. The lobby looks exactly like the front room of his home. The $180,000 worth of Persian rugs, most 60 to 90 years old, were collected by him over the years.
The four-tier, 21-light crystal chandelier is a gift from a friend. The 1915 grandfather clock was purchased at a Lakeland auction.
"This is the accumulation of 32 years of collecting quality antiques," he said.
Another Shiver item: Oak church pews turned upside down to make a long, presentation table. Shiver bought the pews 18 years ago, knowing someday they would be put to good use.
Atop the table is a $500 flower arrangement, which is changed weekly by Rita Carlino, who runs Carlino's, the inn's restaurant.
While the hotel is quiet, the restaurant, which opened in May, is busy with the ladies-who-lunch crowd, who sit on cush chairs and eat with real silverware the signature Chicken Walnut salad.
Carlino, who calls everyone "honey" and has the wait staff doing so also, pushed a rose stem into into the antique Chinese fish pot on a recent day. Artificial flowers would be cheaper and easier, but that just won't do, she says, "because the charm is real."
The Don Vicente had its first guest two weeks ago. Its basement martini bar, the Black Orchid Bistro, will open in two weeks.
Some rooms are still works-in-progress. However, the bridal suite, which rents for $495 a night, is complete. Folded cotton robes lay perfectly on the $940 comforter and sham set, ready for guests.