Archive for October 3rd, 2020

1890s elevator found in historic Florida hotel

Saturday, October 3rd, 2020

Construction workers remodeling a historic 19th century hotel discovered its first electric elevator sealed behind a wall. The cables atop the cab were cut and the shaft and stairwell closed off decades ago, but nothing else was touched. The cab is in excellent condition, as is the machinery once used to operate it. A plaque brands it as a product of The Warner Elevator Manufacturing Company of Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Detroit Hotel plays a starring role in the legend of the founding of the city. General John C. Williams bought the land on Tampa Bay that would become St. Petersburg in 1876. He offered Russian immigrant and railroad magnate Peter Demens the property of the future Detroit Hotel in exchange for him extending the Orange Belt Railway into the town. They flipped a coin to see which of them would get to name the city they were co-founding. Demens won and named it St. Petersburg after his hometown. Williams would go on to the name the hotel he and Demens built after his own hometown of Detroit.

The Queen Anne-style mansion opened in 1888 with 40 guest rooms and no guests. The hotel was alone on an unpaved road, no neighboring businesses, no homes, just the terminus of the Orange Belt Railway. There weren’t 40 people living there, never mind visiting, so it was quite the optimistic gamble. Business began to pick up the next year when the railway offered tour packages to sunny St. Petersburg with its top notch hotel. St. Petersburg was incorporated as a town in 1892, population 300. By the turn of the century, Central Avenue had a bank, an inn, another hotel, a realtor, a drug store, a jewelry store and hat store. A fish wholesale shipping business on the railroad pier became the town’s first major industry.

The Detroit Hotel grew along with the city. An large brick addition to the west side in 1910 more than doubled the rooms, adding another 63. Another addition on the east side in 1914 added again more room, but the massive brick wings erased the original Queen Anne wood siding and balconies from view. Its last days as a hotel was 1993. After that it was converted to condos in 2002 and in 2010 designated a historic local landmark in the St. Petersburg Register of Historic Places. Today the bottom floor is being renovated by the Segreti Hospitality Group for use as a restaurant and a pizzeria/brewery.

The rediscovered elevator was not installed during the original construction of the hotel in 1888. It’s an electric model and St. Petersburg didn’t get electricity until August 1897, so this elevator dates to the last couple of years of the 19th century.

Now the plan is to restore and incorporate the rediscovered elements of the 1888 building into design centerpieces of the new business at 217 Central Avenue. The elevator could hold a table, and be reserved for private dining. More likely, it will become a photo booth.

“We’re going to try to restore it to its historical glory, and really bring out what this building has hidden for so long,” said Segreti’s spokeswoman Dana Speer.

Behind another wall workers discovered some extremely old wallpaper that appears hand-painted. Segreti’s CEO Frank Segreti says he’s not sure if it’s “the original wallpaper,” but maybe.

They framed it, and are now working to recreate more of it for use in the new restaurant. The staircase won’t lead anywhere, Segreti said, but it’s being restored to hearken back to when it was part of the hotel lobby.

They also discovered the hotel’s historic telephone switchboard, cables neatly bundled, each switch labeled with the room number it connected. It will be left where it is and encased in glass for the enjoyment of visitors.

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