Manatee River Hotel History: An 87-year journey to the Bradenton Hampton Inn & Suites

The rebirth of the historic hotel found many challenges along the way

cschelle@bradenton.comNovember 18, 2013 

BRADENTON -- The Manatee River Hotel, set to reopen Tuesday as the Bradenton Hampton Inn & Suites, was conceived as a ritzy playground for the roaring '20s but saw its high-roller hopes go to the gutter when the Great Depression hit and never truly recovered.

"Rendered in Italian Renaissance style it will be one of the most imposing structures in the entire state of Florida," read a July, 9, 1925, article in the Manatee River Journal-Herald announcing the hotel's plans.

The project came on board thanks to investor H.C. Van Sweringen, half of the Van Sweringen brothers who established the affluent Shaker Heights suburb of Cleveland.

Van Sweringen assembled a team of minority investors of historic Bradenton families to help fund the $850,000 hotel, including R.M. Beall, E.P. Green, H.K. Tallant, H.D. Horney, J.B. Gregg and G.P. Smythe. Van Sweringen held 150 shares in the stake of the company while each of the city leaders held a 20-share stake.

Construction began on the Mediterranean revival hotel in August 1925, and when

completed in 1926 the hotel was valued at $2 million. It was operated by the American Hotel Corp., which was the largest hotel operator in the nation at the time.

The accommodations were tiny despite the grandiose treatments, totaling 250 rooms with Murphy beds. A single night, single occupancy stay at the hotel cost $2.50 on opening night.

The seven-story structure with a beige/off-white color featured a roof garden with a tarp-covered band shell for parties with cocktails, helping to give the ritzy hotel the nickname "Queen of the West Coast."

Today's Hampton Inn roof is just a roof, leaving no room for a nightcap and a dance.

Local lore and news clippings at the Manatee County Historical Records Library boasted that the hotel was the spring training quarters of the St. Louis Cardinals, Boston Red Sox and Philadelphia Phillies and other Major League Baseball teams and once home to Hollywood stars.

Mentions of Herbert Hoover, Greta Garbo, Clark Gable, Babe Ruth and Al Capone are found in the clippings, but stories of their presence at the hotel are hard to find. The Historical Records Library doesn't have the hotel's registration book to verify their stays. Gable's stay in Bradenton has been documented through his sailing on the Manatee River by the Twin Dolphin Marina, and he could have stayed at the hotel to watch spring training.

Gable was a first cousin of Red Sox player Joe Cicero, who attended spring training in 1929, according to the book "Spring Training in Bradenton and Sarasota" by Raymond Sinibaldi.

One of the more spectacular parts of the building didn't survive. When built, the hotel was connected to the existing Braden Apartments, which became the Robert Whitney Apartments (also at one time a hotel). The two buildings were connected with a magnificent colonnade on the second floor, featuring a courtyard and pool between the buildings. The apartments were demolished in October 1964 to construct Ninth Street.

The Manatee River Hotel closed in March 1966 due to declining business and was reborn later that August as a senior home and hotel called the Riverpark Hotel, managed by Florida Retirement Hotels.

Manatee River Hotel Inc. sold the property for $1.7 million and it was painted pink in 1983. In 1991, the Riverpark Residence Hotel was renovated and reopened as a senior vacation center.

Illini Hotel Enterprises took over in 1996, buying the hotel for $1.7 million and spending $1 million to renovate the building, reopening it in 1997 as a hotel on four floors and an assisted living facility on two floors.

In 2005, Kendar Development Corp., Riverpark Grande Development and Darrell Rhea purchased the hotel for $3.5 million from Illini Hotel Enterprises ,wanting to construct 40 upscale condos, while kicking out 105 senior residents. The new housing project would be dubbed Riverpark Grande, but the economy tanked and the project failed.

In 2008, investors, including former county commissioner Joe McClash, wanted to buy the hotel and turn it into a boutique hotel, while then-owners Riverpark Grande Development was trying to line up a hotel owner/operator that wanted to have a hotel comparable to a Ritz-Carlton.

A competing plan at the time by the Promenade project developers aimed to build a five-story senior apartment community on the property. One hotel plan by Riverpark Grande wanted permission to rent the city dock to offer packages to rent boats and watercraft.

Another deal proposed in 2008 by Dunn Hospitality Group failed after it asked for $3.4 million from city government in part to build a parking garage.

City officials OK'd a hotel plan, but Riverpark lost the property in foreclosure from Regions Bank after owing $3.1 million in 2009. The city held a lien against the property and boarded it to prevent deterioration.

That's when Widewaters Development came into the picture in 2010, acquiring the deed from Regions through a foreclosure sale. In 2011 it received approval and incentives from the city and federal governments worth $3.3 million to renovate the hotel to National Register of Historic Places standards.

Widewaters reached a deal to open the hotel as the Hampton Inn & Suites. Originally billed as a 115-room hotel, planning during the renovation bumped up the total to 119 rooms.

Construction began in January, and doors to the Hampton Inn will open Tuesday.

-- Information from the Herald's archies were used in this report.

Charles Schelle, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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