BRADENTON -- When the doors open Tuesday to the Hampton Inn & Suites, the renaissance will truly begin for the old Manatee River Hotel.
Once dubbed the "Pink Palace" for its exterior walls, the 87-year-old building has been transformed through a 10-month renovation, creating new life for the once-again ritzy hotel. It features a shining atrium entrance with dazzling marble floors at one entrance and a sweeping colonnade room that radiates class. At the top, balconies offer romantic views of Manatee River and the Bradenton skyline, feeding into the local lore of the time when Clark Gable roamed the Friendly City.
All of these touches mean that Bradenton has rescued a historic property on the brink of destruction to surgically repair it into a glistening beauty.
The life-saving measures for the Manatee River Hotel also meant the death of the Pink Palace in many ways, gutting most of the floors, stripping the pink skin off for an organ transplant and a nip and tuck on the aging Queen of the West Coast. But she's off the operating table, and new blood is pumping through Bradenton's arteries by the name of the Hampton Inn & Suites.
"The heart is truly beating," said Dave Gustafson, director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority and a former hotel development specialist for Benderson Development. "It's a pinnacle building downtown. We lost the Dixie Grande in the '70s, and we were close to losing this building, and thank God we didn't."
The Hampton Inn & Suites is part of the Hilton family of hotels. Once the final OK is given by Hilton's top staff, the Hampton Inn & Suites Bradenton-Downtown Historic District, 309 10th St. W, is expected to accept its first check-in 3 p.m. Tuesday.
"There is no doubt the city of Bradenton has been very supportive," Hampton Inn general manager Spurgeon Nisbett said. "The city of Bradenton, our company have had very high expectations. We have to deliver. We know we have very big shoes to fill."
The 119-room hotel is restored to its natural off-white color and features as many original or historically equivalent fixtures and finishes on its way to become listed on the National Register of Historic Places, thanks to the $21 million renovation.
"It kept its historical, unique charm with all the modern conveniences of a Hampton Inn & Suites," said Kelly Ann Dixon, director of sales and marketing for the hotel.
Widewaters Hotels, a Syracuse, N.Y., company, undertook the massive project with the help of a slew of incentives.
The city will kick in $1 million in up-front payments to Widewaters, with half secured by the developer plus another $100,000 in street and sidewalk work, $1.5 million in property tax rebate over a 15-year-period, plus a 70-year lease for parking in a city-owned lot on Fourth Avenue and a deal for parking in the metered lot on Third Avenue.
That's on top of $1.8 million in federal historic preservation tax credits if the projects meet all of the National Parks Service requirements.
Without that and the city leaders committing to the preservation, the building would have been torn down, said Brian Long, director of development for Widewaters.
"We never wanted to demolish it. I think the turning point was when we had discussions with the city, and county to some degree, they were willing to come up with some economic incentives with tax abatement and some up-front DDA funding to come out and support this," Long said. "When they stepped up and said they want a hotel here, and they want this hotel here, it's a better project because of it."
Readying for first night
If guests want to be among the first who stay Wednesday, they will have to line up at the front door as early as they want, waiting for Hilton to flip the switch and officially accept check-ins. Check-in time is 3 p.m., and rates will initially range from $129 to $209 a night.
Among the first-night guests waiting in line to get a room will include Gustafson, Mayor Wayne Poston and other city and county leaders; the general public can get their chance to be among the first as well.
Hilton employees are taking notice of the hotel, too. The central reservation center that handles many of the bookings for the East Coast through central Texas is based in Tampa.
"They know this property is coming online. They're watching it, they're counting the days down, and they all want to come down and see this hotel and see this downtown," Dixon said. "The anticipation at central reservations is electric."
Hilton/Hampton employees making their own reservations are coming from throughout Florida and as far as New York, Dixon said.
Housekeeping is going through its final routines to make sure everything is perfect the first night, and Nisbett walks every floor each night to make sure all the details are completed.
"In terms of putting the rooms together, they have gone into each room several times and meticulously to make sure each room is clean from top to bottom," Nisbett said. The 32-person staff was handpicked from a pool of 300 applicants, with some working in the top hotels in the area, including the Ritz-Carlton, Sarasota, he said.
Charm with modern amenities
For Widewaters, the project combined several types of hotel projects rolled into one, Long said.
"You had the entire exterior that was a renovation, and the first floor where we renovated or restored or replaced everything with historic replicas, but the second through top floors was more similar to a brand new building because it was gutted, so we were starting with a brand new palette," Long said.
The wood paneling on the columns, for instance, had termite damage, so workers had to match the templates and stain the wood to match the original. In the atrium, artists hand-copied the stenciling and repainted the designs while atop scaffolding; original light fixtures illuminate the hall. The colonnade's manatees with mermaid fins were brought back to life and painted in their original gray, while the Spanish terrazzo's intricate design adds pop to the floor.
"They can come back here years from now, and their handiwork will still be there," Nisbett said of the workers who brought the hotel back to life. "The people who were doing the sanding on the staircase, to see them take the sandpaper? There was a lady, she was in the morning when I got here and in the evening, and she was painstakingly sanding it down, making sure every groove she got it right. That's pride to me."
The first floor of the building at one time featured a barbershop, radio store and Stevenson's clothing store, and those old storefronts with the individual entrances and display windows remain as part of three meeting rooms with names such as Desoto and Anna Maria. The doors can be opened up for private events to welcome people off the street without having to walk into the lobby.
The rooftop garden is long gone, but the new outdoor pool on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street easily doubles as a small playground. It's the only heated, saltwater pool at any hotel in Manatee-Sarasota, Dixon said.
Other historic aspects of the hotel have been salvaged, such as the mailbox, mail chute, elevator dials and other artifacts. Those features are in storage, and the hotel is devising a plan to put those items on display. But it won't be soon. The busy tourist season is here and the hotel has to focus on getting guests through the doors before the added items can be attended to, she said.
Rooms with a view
Each room and floor offers something different throughout the Hampton Inn.
"You can go to each of the 119 rooms and see something a little different because of the way it's laid out," Nisbett said.
What they all do have in common is that they are all non-smoking, are pet friendly and every bed has a fresh duvet every day.
The hotel has more than 13 room types, whether by the bed size, particular corner or floor. Each room brings a modern touch to the historic hotel. Guests will find a lap table to surf the free Wi-Fi from bed, an office desk, a USB charger on the nightstand, large flat-screen TV and other amenities including a microwave and mini-fridge. Suites feature couches with pull-out beds and extended office desk and come with a private balcony.
For extra headroom, take the second floor.
"The second floor has the high cathedral ceilings because the whole second floor at one time was a ballroom," Dixon said. "All those rooms have soaring ceilings, so it's a really unique feel for the hotel."
The second floor also features a large balcony for guests to congregate and breathe in the Bradenton breeze. Most individual rooms along the way have private balconies.
The historical layout and modern amenity mix does make for some interesting combinations. Guests who mind modesty might want to be aware of the window that offers a view from neighboring buildings into a clear glass shower on higher floors, especially in corner rooms. A blind is provided for privacy.
Rising to the top of the building to the six and seventh floors, the large windows on the sixth floor give way to breathtaking views of Manatee River, Palmetto and the city skyline. The seventh-floor balconies also provide an up-close look at the teal tile splashing some color on the off-white walls.
"The seventh floor, every room has the rounded windows, so they have a really fun, unique view," Dixon said. "No cookie cutter rooms here."
Gustafson predicts those top floors will become popular requests for Independence Day fireworks viewing.
The hotel is expected to provide a jolt to the revival of Bradenton being extended through Riverwalk.
The city should expect a $2.5 million economic impact in spending during the first year of the hotel, Long said, based on the average guest spending $50 a day in the local community.
"That doesn't include the money they spend for staying here," Long said.
Tourism and sales taxes will account for an additional $500,000, according to the city, and leaders hope that property values will rise to increase the tax base.
Events and ceremonies are already building themselves around the hotel.
Dixon is handling 15 wedding event requests, including some who want to have their ceremony in the 100-seat colonnade where the acoustics amplify the quietest sounds. Another 20 group bookings are sold through October 2014, including the 2014 Florida State League All-Star Game at McKechnie Field. The Bradenton Blues Festival in December will be a sellout, with some rooms coming online once Hampton fully activates the reservation system, Dixon said.
It Works Global, which is working to finish its headquarters in Palmetto, is arranging for regular meetings at the hotel and will book rooms for conferences planned at the Bradenton Area Convention Center, she said.
Beyond the hotel, other parts of the city will feel the Hampton Inn's presence. The hotel's in-room directory was hand-selected to feature only local businesses from the Bradenton area to have guests support them instead of attractions from Tampa and St. Petersburg.
The nearby Pier 22 restaurant is the official caterer of the Hampton Inn, and was built at the same time the hotel was, giving the pair a special historical relationship.
Chef and general manager Greg Campbell is trying to handle seven wedding inquiries already for the hotel, and figures business across the river can benefit.
"We've got the Palmetto Riverside Bed and Breakfast across the river, and the bride and groom may stay there, but the whole wedding party might stay at the Hampton," he said.
At O'Bricks Irish Pub & Martini Bar on Old Main Street, general manager Rick Willats said he knows a full hotel without a full restaurant will be good news for the Old Main restaurants and bars.
"It'll have an absolutely huge impact. They serve a continental breakfast in the morning from 7 to 9, but if you have a full hotel with no place to eat and drink, then they'll come downtown. Everything down here is just going to be incredible," Willats said.
Gustafson is working to bring more restaurants and businesses downtown, thanks in part to the demand created by the new hotel.
"My increase in business calls since Riverwalk opened is up 40 percent. I assume once the hotel opens, it will go up another 20 percent on top of that," Gustafson said.
Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.