Photo by Bullet, 2013

Two years ago, I wrote about the Dixie Walesbilt Hotel in Lake Wales and have since updated that article with new photos and updated information. The last information I had heard at the time was from a newspaper article which stated that the owner hoped to open the north side of the building for retail businesses by the end of 2011.

Along with a small group of artists and history buffs, I had the opportunity to get a personal tour of the building by Ray Brown, the owner and developer . We were welcomed by Ray and Steve Sutcliffe, a worker at the Lake Wales Depot Museum, and were first shown one of the storefronts, specifically the one where a pizza place will be located at. Hard hats were handed out to us and we made our way down a corridor lined with potential retail space, it was noted that the wood had to be completely replaced.

Photo by Bullet, 2013

The progress made so far is most notable in the ornate lobby, where large wooden tables sit in the center with tons of architectural books and magazines laid across them. Large trunks and antique furniture, many of which are originally from the hotel that have been relocated and bought at auction and others which are from the period, lay around lobby and pile up against the walls.

Down one of the halls was the old restaurant, large windows look out to what was probably once a beautiful landscape which has since been replaced by a parking lot. A photo of this room can be seen in the article of hotel, taken by Nomeus in 2009, I was under the assumption the was the ballroom which is not the case. Ray described how along the east wall, there was probably a mural which reflected the view outside the windows.

Photo by Bullet, 2013

We made our way upstairs where we were shown the actual ballroom, a smaller room with wooden, soundproof flooring and access to the second floor roof. At this point, I noticed the large number of motion detectors throughout the hotel. Ray mentioned that there was one break-in, where someone had kicked open one of the doors and the alarm instantly went off, though the individual ran off before officers could arrive.

Out on the roof, the skylights are the first things to be noticed that are placed above the corridor with the storefronts that we first passed through. They were designed with wire glass, or chicken-wire glass, which diffused the light and allowed for extra security at the time. Just below the glass were openings, now wrapped in plastic possible to prevent water from entering, but in the past were covered with copper vents which allowed air to flow down into the building as well as being protected from the elements.

We were told tar covered the entire roof, even covering the skylights, and was ultimately removed as part of the restoration. According to Ray, most of the damage was done during a renovation in the 1980s, which I’m assuming was when Victor Khubani owned the property. Along the perimeter of the roof is a stone wall that let guests look out towards downtown, now broken light fixtures ran along the wall which at one point would illuminate at night. I was impressed when I was told that the stone, which looked brand new, was actually original and was cleaned and sand blasted to that state.

The south side of the roof though is in a less ideal state. The tar which was mentioned, removed from the north side, covered the entirety of the roof, including hiding the skylights. Under some of the tar which has corroded away over the years, you could make out some of the old tiles.

Photo by Bullet, 2013

We were deciding on if we wanted to make our way to the basement or head further upstairs. After a quick vote, Ray unlocked the door leading to the upper floors. A small, tight stairwell was the only way up and down from the upper floors as the elevator had been removed and was inoperable long before then.

After eight exhausting flights of stairs, we exited out onto the roof and were welcomed with a gorgeous view of downtown Lake Wales, Bok Tower could be seen off in the horizon, sadly you can’t make it out in the photo I took as it was just behind the water tower. After a couple of minutes of rest, we decided to finally make our way down to the basement, stopping at a few of the floors on the way down.

Photo by Bullet, 2013

I believe we stopped on the fifth floor, could be wrong but nonetheless, as soon as you step through, you can see there’s still lots of work to be done. A lot of the walls were torn down and smashed to pieces, holes in the floor let you see into the hallways and rooms below and piles of rubble spilled out of doorways. According to Steve, most of that damage was caused by vandals and scrappers after the building was shuttered in 1996, ripping out piping, wiring, and anything else they believed could be sold for cash.

After taking a few photos, Ray led us down to the third floor. I had seen this floor multiple times, but only in photos; Nomeus took photos of this floor in 2009 which can be found here and from a tour he took of the building earlier this year, which will be shared with you all soon. Though there was damage on this floor as well, there was more furniture than the last floor we were on.

A couch still sat in the center of a room, light fixtures were still fixed to the wall, ceiling fans still hung throughout the floor, a desk laid against the wall. One bathroom look almost untouched; the fixtures such as the toilet and bathtub were still in place, a shower curtain still hanging, shelving still attached to the walls, and decorated with flower print wallpaper.

At this point, we decided to make our way down to basement.

Photo by Bullet, 2013

I had never seen the basement prior to it being cleaned up, but from what Nomeus had described, it was a disaster. That isn’t what you see anymore as you make your way down into the brightly lit and grey/white colored room. Huge pipes hung from the ceiling and were being repaired to the state they were in the past. Down one of the tunnels, Ray pointed out a pipe which would supply the pizza place just above it.

Laid against one of the walls was the elevator, or rather the remains of it. It was described how the elevator used an old system by using weights which dropped when you wanted to go up and raised when you wanted to go down, though going down was much slower due to this system and going up was much faster. The elevator shaft was empty but we were told how it used to be filled with furniture tossed by vandals from the floors above and was also flooded with water, before it was cleaned out by Ray and his team.

Photo by Bullet, 2013

We made our way outside to the backside of the hotel and were shown the new drains which were put in place to prevent the building from flooding. The pool which was part of the renovation in the 80s was filled with dirt, but will entirely be removed in the future as it was not part of the original design and will be replaced with an outdoor dining area.

The large, black letters which read “Hotel Grand”, will be removed as well as that was also part of the 80s renovation.

Our group made one more pass through the lobby for some last minute photos. We accepted an invitation to photograph a couple of train cars Ray was restoring at the Lake Wales Depot Museum, handed back our hard hats and made our way to our car. As we left, I thought about how great it was to meet Ray, who spoke so enthusiastically about the hotel and the history that went along with it. Especially in Florida, we demolish what little history we have here to replace it with failed condominium projects or empty parking lots, so it’s wonderful to know there’s some positive things to come in the near future.

Photo by Bullet, 2013

25 Comments

  1. Thrilled that this building is being restored. We need to preserve our history instead of demolishing it.

  2. Bullet, these photos are outstanding.

    LOVE your lens. I may convert. Just sayin.

  3. I was trying to go through the proper channels to get in there to take some photos. Thanks you for posting this. I drive by is everytime I go to Lake Wales. The office I go to is just a block away.

  4. I agree with Jessica. Very happy to see something old and wonderful being restored instead of torn down…which is the way things normally go in Florida :(

  5. Not a native of Florida but I do value and have respect for historical landmarks , music and people that remind us of times gone by or bring back memories.
    Would be nice to find photos of what this hotel looked like in its glory days and show them as a then and now. Will make it a point to drive by next time I am visiting the Bok Tower gardens. Nice area ! Thanks

  6. I am so looking forward to the hotel’s reopening. I see there is a lot to be done so please work hard. You have taken on a beautiful project and I see much progress. Thanks for fencing the property as I would not want any more vandilisum.

  7. What are they planning on doing with the old suitcases and trunks? Would love to get a hold of some of those.

  8. What a refreshing thing to see. A beautiful building being rehabbed with love. So different than the usual “tear it down” mentality. we need people likethis in Jacksonville.

  9. I would love to be apart of the next group adventure you set up! I’m sad I missed out on this one it’s such an awesome building. :(

  10. I second that, Haley. I would love to join another tour or even the ability to do a photo shoot in a location like this. Such nice architecture and history.

  11. I absolutely LOVE this! My daughter and I went past this beautiful building a few months back, and we were awestruck by it’s beauty. So wonderful to know it will be fixed up to it’s former glory. I can’t wait until the day when it’s all fixed up and we can take a look inside!!

  12. I live here :3

  13. So glad to see the progress is continuing. I was captivated by that building from the highway when I drove through the area a number of years ago. A few years later I was able to photograph the exterior and other parts of Lake Wales. Such wonderful historic architecture in Lake Wales. Can’t wait to see the final results with the hotel.

  14. We stayed in the hotel in 1985. We had heard about the renovations by the Agape Players and were excited about staying there on a trip to Disney World. When we arrived the lobby looked beautiful, but everything else was shut down. The first room we were assigned to was dirty so we were moved to a second room. Cigarette smoke was filtering into our room all night from somewhere. The next morning we tried to leave and called for the elevator–but none came. (The elevator was not automatic–had to be run by an elevator operator.) Finally, we made our way down a dimly lit stairwell to the lobby–and NOBODY was there anywhere.

    After we got outside we decided we were not coming back although we had 2 nights booked. But now, we were locked out.
    I knew that with a building that large, there had to be another way in. I walked around and sure enough, found a small window pane that was broken out next to a door. I reached in, unlocked the door, and came in behind the stage of the dinner theatre.

    We got our luggage, left a note to send us a bill, and left with a funny story.

    Mark

    • At least they gave you a night to remember :P

      As for the elevator, at that time, I’m pretty sure the elevator was broken. When it was turned over and renovated into a flophouse, the elevator was never repaired and was one of the complaints made by the city. As I remember it being explained, it was a very old type of elevator which used weights and a pulley system to get from floor to floor. So when you were going up for example, the weights were dropped and unlike Tower of Terror, going up was MUCH faster than going down.

      • Bullet
        I’ve been in Lake Wales since 2009 and it’s funny that you reference the Tower of Terror ride. I’ve been calling the Grand that since I moved here from Hollywood Fl.
        I just hope Ray Brown can get the backing he needs to get this project back on track and done.
        Please keep up your interesting articles.
        Dave

  15. My wife and I were in Lake Wales some years ago, I felt so sad when I saw this building. We stay in Dundee Scotland a city that dates back before the twelfth Century. Our city council has spent years demolishing old buildings and replacing them with new buildings. They are now tearing down the newish buildings and replacing them yet again. Our city has lost a lot of character and heritage. It is so very uplifting to see someone with vision and enthusiasm and an eye for a great past. Well done Sir I hope to come back and see the renovation when it is completed.

  16. The Dixiewalesbilt Hotel is not a green monster like some say ! The Dixiewalesbilt is Lake Wales Florida. With out it the city of Lake Wales will loose the most amazing piece of old florida history! Its like if Tampa did not have Henry Plants Tampa Bay Hotel now days University of Tampa. And Tampa just woke up and saved the Hotel Floridan as well ! Wake up Lake Wales and get behind the efforts to restore this museum before its to late! Manny Alvarez

  17. I think it is outstanding that this building is being preserved and rebuilt. From a business standpoint I don’t see it ever being economically viable as hotel again. It’s just too far from Disney World and any of the other Florida attractions. I don’t see it being viable as regular Condominiums either. However, I do think it could work and flourish as Retirement/Assisted Living Facility. With our nation’s aging population increasing geometrically I think this would be the smartest and best business use of this wonderful property.

  18. It’s good to note that since these photos were taken, the exterior has been repainted to its original white gleam, the Windows reglazed, and beautiful exterior lighting installed. It is believed that the building could be returned to service as a hotel, as there is plenty of demand in the area.

  19. Hoping for some updates on current progress. Check it every winter on our return to our winter home and hope to learn more about the future of this gorgeous ole gal!