LAKE WALES – The redevelopment of the 1926 Dixie Walesbilt Hotel in downtown Lake Wales reaches a milestone as restoration of the building’s exterior has begun. The restoration includes surface repair, pressure washing, paint removal, chemical treatment, and a comprehensive resurfacing of the exterior. These are the first improvements to the Walesbilt’s exterior in more than 30 years.
A swing stage, hoisted initially to the rooftop by a crane, will allow workers and equipment access to every part of the facade. The setup is similar to what is used by window washers on skyscrapers and had to be engineered specifically for the Walesbilt. Work will begin on the west face of the building. The development team and consultants have been in constant contact with city officials to address any procedural, safety, and permitting issues. The project’s structural engineer and an OSHA safety consultant recently spent a day on site reviewing the building and process. Each face of the building is expected to take approximately two months to complete.
Many have long expressed their concern with the Walesbilt’s exterior condition and its psychological impact on downtown. However, prior to restoring the exterior, other development concerns needed to be answered. Project advisor Rusty Ingley hinted to this mindset, “We’ve spent the last eight months researching both the viability of the hotel’s re-development and operations. As much as we knew the building’s exterior made it hard for people to believe any effort was underway, it made no sense to start work until we knew the whole project was going to happen.”
That’s a reference to the feasibility study begun last spring when Ingley and Reid Hardman spoke out on behalf of the Walesbilt and joined the development team. The two have met regularly with the developer and a stream of consultants to assess the project’s potential. Results of their research will be presented to the City Commission in February. Hardman is clearly looking ahead. “You change the face of the hotel, you change the face of downtown. This is a huge milestone in the redevelopment process; one that will positively influence the mindset and attitudes of citizens towards the project. It’s hard to overstate its significance given all that’s transpired. With financing in hand for this phase of work and beyond, we’re not looking back.”
The hotel exterior had several erroneous coatings over the decades that made it difficult and expensive for even seemingly simple improvements to occur such as changing the exterior’s color. Unfortunately, the original stucco was tarred over years ago and layers of paint have not adhered well to the tar. The developer’s experience with sandblasting tar off the lobby level a few years ago proved that sandblasting the tower would be impractical. As the final phase of exterior work, the lobby level will be restored using a limestone mix to help match its original appearance. In some cases, pressure washing and resurfacing the exterior will commence without removing the tar. This process includes removing loose paint and pretreating the surface with a total of seven specialized chemical bonding agents.
The initial phase of exterior work took place around Christmas with some limited excavation and regrading of the Walesbilt’s west plaza, outside the ground floor. That work was necessary to address utility issues and expose the entire building surface. Many dump truck loads of debris and sediment were hauled off site as a result.
Highlighting the list of contractors, hotel consultants, financiers, and developers who have consulted on the project is the State Historic Preservation Officer Robert Bendus. Mr. Bendus offered his services after touring the building in November. He is sending professional staff to the Walesbilt in February to further collaborate with the development team.