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The Gasparilla Inn: History and Lifestyle in the Naples, Florida Area

Posted on Sunday, November 20, 2011

Do you need a weekend getaway when you already own property in Naples, Florida? Well just in case, we have a few lifestyle getaways even when you live in a place as beautiful as Naples.

This weekend we headed to the Gasparilla Inn to celebrate a good friend’s wedding.  The Inn is just two hours north of us by car due to a circuitous northern loop over rivers and back bays to a barrier island and the Inn. Treat yourself to fine food, walks to the bay or ocean, jog down the trails, take in some nature and just take yourself back to a different place and time.

Just read about the history of this place from their website:

“The Gasparilla Inn is one of the largest surviving resort hotels in Florida, constructed originally for wealthy northerners during the time when the state became a travel and vacation destination. The original plans for the hotel were drawn and presented in 1909 or 1910 by Augustus D. Shephard … and a decision to move forward with the construction of what was first known as the Hotel Boca Grande was made, and it appears to have been very near completion by January of 1911. References state that it was open for the 1911-1912 season. At first the hotel was a small two-story building with 20 rooms available only for the exclusive use of visiting directors and The Inn officers. Peter Bradley, an officer of the Boca Grande Land Company, an entity of his American Agricultural Chemical Company, and the owner of most of the land on Gasparilla Island, first envisioned a quiet residential island community in Boca Grande, largely for The Inn employees and stockholders. It is Bradley who is credited with engineering the island’s development by creating a major phosphate port, a center for commercial fishing and an upscale resort; namely the town of Boca Grande and its centerpiece.

The original 1911 block of the hotel was designed in a simple Frame Vernacular style, and was most likely constructed by local builders without the use of an architect. As soon as the hotel opened, stores and businesses were established to serve the hotel guests and local residents. Sunday trains brought visitors for a day at the beach. Some took advantage of the opportunity to purchase property on the island and build homes.

The officers of the Boca Grande Land Company made the decision to change the small hotel to a world-class resort. They hired prominent Tampa architect Francis J. Kennard to draw the plans for the hotel expansion, and the hotel was enlarged for the first time in 1912. Peter Bradley and his assistant, Martin Towle, personally selected and purchased the furnishings for their new resort at Wanamaker’s in New York City. The expansion lent some characteristics of the Queen Anne style of architecture that was prevalent in both residential and hotel architecture during that period. The expanded hotel, renamed The Gasparilla Inn, opened for the 1912-1913 season.

The owners soon built a casino immediately south of the main building. The casino was not for gambling, but for parties and nightly entertainment. Tennis courts were adjacent to the casino on the east. A bandstand was built nearby. A beach club with a bathhouse was built on the west side of the property on the Gulf of Mexico. A croquet lawn was laid out at the rear of the main building. A nine-hole golf course was on a nearby U.S. military reserve under a lease agreement with the government. Carl Rust Parker of Portland, Maine, a landscape architect with the prominent Olmsted Brothers firm, laid out and planted lush tropical landscaping and palm trees on the Inn property and along the main streets of Boca Grande. A greenhouse was installed to supply the Inn with flowers. Until the early 1930s, fresh water was brought by train cars to the Inn.

Along with other prominent and wealthy northern guests, many wealthy fishermen began an annual migration to the Inn, relishing in its privacy and seclusion. Those men formed an informal club named the Pelican Club. In about 1914 a formal fishing club was formed.

The hotel immediately became a great success with members of Boston society being its first guests. By 1915, accommodation requests had increased so greatly that the company again called upon Kennard to draw plans to double the size of the hotel. In December of 1915, $85,000 was appropriated for the expansion, to build servant’s quarters on the grounds, and for furnishings. Hettie Rhoda Meade, a New York interior designer, was hired to decorate The Inn. This time, the furnishings were purchased from Paine’s in Boston, and Peter Bradley again insisted upon helping make the selections.

In the early part of the century, The Inn hosted such tycoons as J.P. Morgan, Henry duPont and Florida railroad and resort tycoon, Henry Plant. Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone are also said to have been guests, as well as famous portrait painter John Singer Sargent. Cabots, Drexels and Biddles also were early guests. The railroad would continue to bring guests to the island until 1958 when the Boca Grande causeway was completed. Some guests arrived by private yachts, and many guests were lured by the tarpon and an opportunity to escape from the industrial Northeast.

By 1921, Peter Bradley’s brother, Robert, had become Chairman of the Board of AAC and he proceeded to promote land sales on Gasparilla Island. He hired several salesmen and even bought a sea sled to transport potential buyers from Tampa or Ft. Myers. Guests at The Inn, beachfront property owners, and some early residents were anxious and resentful of the push for sales and its potential impact on the island. To their relief, the sales season turned out to be unsuccessful. Island property owners wrote in an early brochure, in reference to the 1920s, “It had no boom and does not seek speculative investors.”

Very few homes were completed on the island during that decade. Thus, Boca Grande and the operation of The Inn were little affected by the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, except for some damage and the loss of The Inn’s original beach club in a 1921 hurricane.

The new beach club was added in 1928, followed by an 18-hole golf course built by Barron Collier soon after Barron Collier/The Collier Corporation of Useppa Island and New York purchased The Inn and its surrounding property in March 1930 for $150,000. The next year, Collier also purchased the town’s telephone system, street lighting system and fire protection system. Collier was extremely active in Florida development, and Collier County is named for him. (Collier had purchased a nearby island, Useppa Island, near Gasparilla Island, and had a resort hotel there by 1911.) Upon purchasing The Gasparilla Inn, he undertook some improvements to The Inn property. He oversaw the construction of a new façade and loggia on the west side of the main building. The new façade, in the Neo-Classical style, provided a more impressive and grand guest entrance to the hotel, as well as first and second floor verandas for guests to enjoy. He also constructed ten detached cottages for guests. A fire sprinkler system was also installed. Modifications in 1931 to what became, and is presently, the primary façade and entrance on the west, gave the main entrance details of the Neo-Classical style of architecture.

A special room, the Pelican Room, was built in about 1932 for use by the longstanding Pelican Club members. Their trophies were displayed and club members could share fishing stories and yarns, smoke cigars, shoot billiards or engage in conversation and perhaps, at the end of Prohibition, enjoy a cocktail. The hotel would have no public cocktail lounge until after World War II.

Replacement tennis courts were built by 1933, when Collier relocated them to allow for the construction of the new guest cottages. All except two of the historic cottages were built at the same time in 1933, most likely by the same unknown builder. Collier died in 1939 and, in 1961, the Collier Corporation sold The Inn, cottages and surrounding property to a syndicate of winter residents. The syndicate included DuPont heir Bayard Sharp. Three years later, Sharp bought out the other members of the syndicate and formed Gasparilla Inn, Inc. His contribution to the island was to stabilize and strengthen it. The Inn played an important role in doing so. Sharp kept The Inn in its traditional form. When Sharp acquired the property his newly formed corporation poured millions of dollars into restoring it to its original elegance. Sharp updated and undertook major work and repairs, and built a public dock for guests. One of the improvements that he made was to construct new dormitories (1970 & 1972) for the staff. He also oversaw the construction of almost a half dozen new cottages.

Most of the historic cottages, and all of the non-historic cottages, still retain their original floor plans. Additionally, original interior doors, door and window casings, and pine floors have survived, or have been matched to original when necessary. Cottage bathrooms have been updated several times over the years.

During 1967-1978, Sharp constructed buildings for maintenance use, and demolished the original kitchen in 1976, constructing one that was fireproof and included room for staff dining. Architect Mario Troncoso of Temple Terrace, Florida designed the new kitchen. Willis Smith Construction, Inc. was the contractor.

During the 1970s and 1980s, Sharp, along with approximately 300 others, was active in the Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association (GICIA). This group worked hard to preserve the old way of life on the island. Nearly all of the property owners and several of the island’s long-term guests put great effort into a fight against excessive development. They were successful in limiting the amount and size of future development. Because of limited development that has taken place and the designation of a local historic district to protect the historic commercial core, Boca Grande retains its unique, unspoiled, natural and historic feeling today.

A large number of wealthy winter residents and guests intersperse with fishermen and downtown merchants, and together have formed a year-round community on Gasparilla Island.

The Inn and cottages totaled 138 rooms by 1981. Later, the number of rooms in the main building increased. In the early 1980s, Sharp and his brother, Hugh, traded waterfront property on the island for the abandoned railroad right-of-way which they donated for use as a bicycle path for island guests and residents (check out for more details).

We had a great time here with our friends celebrating a wedding in a wonderful tropical setting. The moon was up last night over the palm trees and the temperatures were in the low 70’s early evening. What a fantastic place for a weekend.

The tropical lifestyle can go right along with your Naples real estate ownership just keep reading the blog, check out the web site for community activities or just give us a call and we will let you know all about life down here in paradise.

Have a great weekend.

No legal advice or suggestions are being given in this Blog and the writing of this Blog are intended for the sole use of our clients.

Mark Goebel, PA is a REALTOR with Coldwell Banker on 5th avenue in Naples, Florida with 35+ years of visiting and living in Naples. After 25 years at Accenture, Mark retired as a managing director and spends his time helping non profits and building a Naples real estate team with his wife Nan. Talk to Mark and Nan about life in Naples and why they chose this place to live full-time over all others and enjoy Naples real estate.

Mark Goebel, PA
Mobile: 239.595.3921
Facebook: NaplesBestAddresses
Twitter @mcgoebel