Massachusetts couple shares connection to Bradenton's historic hotel

nwilliams@bradenton.comJanuary 15, 2013 

Sitting in their cozy living room in Charlotte County, Jim and Arline Smyth laid a stack of old newspaper articles and black-and-white photographs across their wooden coffee table.

The display of articles follows a sequence of events at Bradenton's Manatee River Hotel, the city's 1920s-era downtown hotel now commonly known as The Pink Palace.

The photos are of Jim as a young man, standing on the hotel's roof in 1949, and Arline, smiling while collecting a prize at the former Paul and Donnas Royal Grill in Bradenton the same year.

The Smyths have a connection to Bradenton and its historic hotel, one that has lasted the entirety of their unfailing love affair, now in its 65th year.

And with the groundbreaking ceremony for the $15 million renovation of the hotel slated for 4 p.m. Thursday, the Smyths took a stroll down memory lane, one that even precedes the building's pink makeover.

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The couple met at the once-luxurious hotel as two bright-eyed youngsters from Massachusetts. Eighteen-year-old Arline Spidell arrived in Bradenton in 1944, while Jim came three years later in 1947 at the age of 21. For two years, they worked at the River Hotel together, Arline as a desk clerk and Jim as a waiter. Though they grew up less than 40 miles apart in Massachusetts, they met across the street from the Bradenton hotel one night in 1947.

"He came down with the head waiter," said Arline, now 86. "I was going out and they were standing across the street and I went over and got introduced."

"I was a rookie, she was an old-timer then," said Jim, now 87.

Jim lived in a makeshift room on the top floor of the hotel; Arline lived in a suite on the third floor -- Room 304, to be exact.

Jim would treat Arline to trips to the beach, movies and dinner dates in Bradenton and Sarasota. Some days at the hotel, she would peek through a small opening from the lobby to watch Jim serving guests in the dining room.

In the offseason of 1948, Jim followed Arline to her hometown in Gloucester, Mass., where they rejoined as co-workers at the Thorwald Hotel, owned by the same family that purchased the Bradenton hotel. When they returned to Bradenton that fall, they were engaged.

On Dec. 5, 1948, Jim and Arline Smyth wed at Bradenton's St. Joseph's Catholic Church. The reception was held at the hotel. Nearly all of the guests in the hotel attended.

"The owner said I could use one of the suites upstairs," Arline said. "The headwaiter, he came up and put table cloths on the tables and a big fancy punch bowl. There was hardly any place to sit so people didn't stay long."

The tourist season of 1949 would be the couple's last year working at the hotel. They settled in their home state, started a family, and pursued other careers. Jim spent years as a truck driver while Arline worked as a school secretary, in between raising three children.

The hotel closed in 1960 and reopened as a senior citizens resort renamed the Riverpark Hotel, which closed in 2005. The building has remained vacant since then.

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The hotel, now purchased by Widewaters Bradenton LLC, will eventually reopen as a Hampton Inn and Suites featuring 115 rooms, which will include king- and queen-sized suites, along with traditional rooms. Over the last few weeks, Tampa-based Wood Window Makeover.com has been reinstalling restored windows and wood frames. Half of the original windows, made from hand-blown glass, remain intact, but several, either cracked or broken entirely, were replaced over time.

In its heyday, the Smyths said the hotel was a prime location in Tampa Bay. It was used by the former Boston Braves pro baseball franchise and wealthy business owners.

"I thought it was pretty swanky hotel," Jim said. "I'd been in a few hotels in Boston and it certainly compared to the ones in Boston."

Arline can recall a staircase that descended from the second floor to the lobby. The banister was painted gold and a single rug stretched from the entrance throughout the entire hallway of the lobby. A well-known joke among staff circulated about how the sun room was built on the wrong end of the building.

Jim remembers the owner of Williams Lectric Shave strolling through the hotel, tipping everyone as she went.

"She didn't tip me," Arline quipped

When Arline started work in 1944, the hotel had yet to be painted pink.

"It was kind of yellow," she said. "That's the way concrete gets after a while."

The next year, it was painted its current color.

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As they got older, Jim and Arline would vacation in Bradenton with their family. They always made the effort to stop by the hotel, surprised to see it still standing. Other Bradenton hotels from the era, the Dixie Grand and the Robert Whitney, have since been demolished.

The orange groves they remember between Bradenton and Sarasota have become highways, housing developments and commercial real estate.

The City Hall where they bought their marriage license has been converted to an office building.

The Smyths moved to Englewood in Charlotte County in 1998 and frequently pass through Manatee County. Seven years ago, they spoke with a construction foreman on site at the hotel, who told them it would soon reopen.

"He says, 'Come back in a year and I'll give you a tour,'" Jim said. "The money ran out, I guess."

For 65 years, they've kept track of the hotel. It means that much. It was the origin of their love for each other.

"There's one of my best memories, right there," said Jim, pointing at his beloved wife. "Still with me."

Nick Williams, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext. 7049. Twitter:@_1NickWilliams.

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