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Vinoy searching for its elusive history

The legendary resort turns to the community for memorabilia and anecdotes to help reconstruct its story in words and pictures for next year's 75th anniversary celebration.

By LENNIE BENNETT

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 7, 1999


ST. PETERSBURG -- Did F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway really sleep here?

That is just one of many legends associated with the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, a historic hotel on the downtown waterfront. Over the next year, in anticipation of its 75th anniversary in 2000, hotel officials want to collect information and memorabilia that will separate myth from the reality of the Vinoy's past.

The Vinoy Park Hotel, as it was originally named, was built in 1925 by Pennsylvania oil baron Aymer Vinoy Laughner on a 12-acre site, now 501 Fifth Ave. NE.

Its fortunes followed those of the city's, through boom-and-bust times and numerous owners, evolving through the years from its glamorous debut into a shabby gentility. The hotel closed in 1974 and its furnishings were sold.

For years, it languished as a vacant derelict, vandalized and looted, while several potential developers came and went. It reopened in 1992 with a big social splash after a $93-million restoration. Today, it is considered one of the premier resorts on Florida's west central coast.

"We lost a lot of our history when the Vinoy was closed for 17 years," said Vinoy spokesperson Krista Boling. "We have a small collection of photos and items like menus and china. We'd like to "borrow back' things for our anniversary events or display them in a permanent collection if they're donated."

Boling cited an old journal that a Vinoy Club member has donated that contains entries about his father's stay at the resort. Someone else recently gave her a pin worn by waiters in the hotel's restaurant in the 1920s.

Boling continued, "We've been told all kinds of things, for example that Fitzgerald and Hemingway visited, or that the Vinoy is on old nautical maps because it was a beacon, but we don't know. If we could find the old registers or if someone has one of the old maps, we could confirm or deny some of these stories."

She and Elaine Normile, the resort's historian, would also like to assemble a record of items and architectural pieces that were sold off and have been incorporated into other buildings.

"We know that some of the old ballroom floor is in Harvey's (Fourth Street Grill), and we've heard that some of the pecky cypress beams are around in other buildings, but we can't confirm it."

A painting of the Vinoy has been commissioned from Christopher Still, the artist who painted the late Gov. Lawton Chiles' official portrait that incorporated tokens and personal items emblematic of his life and career. They would like to collect enough memorabilia for Still to use that technique in the Vinoy painting.

Memories of the old days are also sought. A hardcover "coffee table" book will be published in November that will include history and personal anecdotes.

If you have memorabilia you would like to loan or donate, call Amy Spencer, director of special events, at 894-1000. Anecdotes, or "special moments," should be addressed to Spencer at the Renaissance Vinoy Resort, 501 Fifth Ave. NE, St. Petersburg, FL 33701.

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