MANATEE -- From the detail of the stenciling to the woodwork and windows, the work completed to make the former Manatee River Hotel breathe again turned out to be award-winning.
The Florida Trust For Historic Preservation awarded the team behind restoring the 88-year-old hotel to the Bradenton Historic District Hampton Inn & Suites, 309 10th St. W. The hotel received a meritorious recognition -- between outstanding and honorable mention -- for the restoration and rehabilitation category.
"This is our first award that we won, so it's special. And first of many, I'm sure of that," said Kelly Ann Dixon, director of sales and marketing for the Bradenton Hampton Inn.
Developer Widewaters Hotels, Widewaters Construction, Hampton Inn & Suites, Atlanta-based Hogan Campis Architecture and Tampa-based Atelier Architects were all part of the team that turned a building on the verge of being demolished to a hub of activity for downtown. The team will be honored during the Florida Trust's 36th annual conference May 15-17 in Tampa.
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Atelier Architecture was responsible for keeping track of all of the building's historic elements so the contractor knew its options for restoration or replacement as well as logging all of the changes so federal tax credits can be claimed for the historic preservation, said Vivian Salaga, an architect who worked on the project.
Principal partner in the firm John
Tennison said projects like the Hampton Inn can make a "huge difference in the economic impact of the community."
"I think the aesthetics of changing a building from something that was boarded up and overrun with weeds to something that's attractive and harkens back to an historic era is really impacting," Tennison said. "I think it has a significant impact on the quality of life in a community."
Widewaters, a Syracuse, N.Y., company spent $21 million on the 10-month renovation, opening Nov. 19. The financial incentives to restore the hotel included up to $1.8 million if the renovation met all National Parks Service requirements. The city also offered $1.5 million in property tax rebates over a 15-year period along with $1 million in up-front payments to Widewaters and $100,000 in street and sidewalk improvements for renovating the hotel.
"This thing was an eyelash away from being demolished and thank you to Widewaters, the DDA, the City of Bradenton and Manatee County, who all got together and pulled together and saved this because it took a lot of financial risk on everyone's part to save this building," said David Gustafson, executive director of the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority, who oversaw the city's interest in the hotel.
The hotel opened as the Manatee River Hotel in 1926 and was built for $2 million by H.C. Van Sweringen, who helped plan Shaker Heights in Cleveland. The hotel went through many transformations, including a time when it was pink and called the Pink Palace. Widewaters acquired the deed from Regions bank through foreclosure in 2010 after the hotel was boarded up by the city.
The historical features of the hotel brings higher expectations for the limited service hotel compared to other Hampton Inns, Dixon said, having to provide a full-service experience save for providing breakfast and dinner.
"We have to do better than that regular Hampton," Dixon said. "Once they step in those doors and see what the product is, we have to exceed that expectation and we're doing a really good job of it."
Tennison credited Widewaters for being cooperative and for following restoration and replacement rules to the T because not every contractor in a restoration project will spend the money necessary to truly restore a building, he said.
Some of that work was trying to make the place modern while maintaining historic charm -- a particular challenge after previous owners gutted floors -- and leaving a bit of an open canvas for the rooms.
"Most historic hotels relied heavily on the social evening in the lobby or ballroom. This was the days before television, people wanted to go to their rooms and sleep. So they socialized downstairs in the main space of the hotel and consequently the rooms were usually pretty small," Tennison said. "Bringing those up to a current marketability and still retaining the historic essence of the building was the real trick."
One of the biggest challenges was the wood paneling, which suffered extensive termite damage on the first floor columns, Tennison said. He credited S&S Craftsmen from Tampa for mirroring the original panel design to restore the beauty of the lobby, as well as stencil artist Nicole Abbott.
Working at the Hampton Inn is almost like curating a museum, trying to pull out some historical artifacts to rotate on display or find photography that shows off the city during the hotel's heyday. The newest item to make an appearance in the hotel is the original mail chute. While the chute system isn't hooked up, the mailbox is in service with daily collection from the Postal Service.
"When we called the post office and said could we have the key to clean it up and lock it up they said, 'Oh no, it's a real live mailbox. We'll be using that,'" Dixon said.
The original elevator dials will be displayed soon, even though they are not functional, and more original photography will grace the walls.
On the newer end, Widewaters sprung for a copper toned aluminum dining set in the colonnade to be a green property, eliminating the need of linen while still providing elegant settings for receptions, Dixon said.
The hotel is the first in the Sarasota and Bradenton market to have those tables, a feature that's trending in the northern markets, Dixon said.
"We will always be tweaking to be better, better and better," Dixon said.
Even the new furniture complements the history, Salaga said.
"The contemporary treatment that the hotel chose to do in the rooms is very, very complementary to the historic nature of the building," she said.
All that there's left to do is sleep in one of the beds.
"I haven't gone to stay there overnight, but I really would love to do that for a fun weekend to go there and enjoy," Salaga said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.