The Dixie Walesbilt Hotel, known as the Grand Hotel in later years, is one of a small number of skyscrapers built in the 1920s that still stand today and is a prime example of how optimistic people were during the Florida land boom. Built in 1926, it found financing through a stock-sale campaign in the local business community, costing $500,000 after it was completed(which equates to about $6 million today.)
The building architecture, masonry vernacular with hints of Mediterranean revival, is also a good example of the time is was built. It was designed by two well-known architects at the time, Fred Bishop who designed the Byrd Theatre in Virginia, and D.J. Phipps, whose designed both the Wyoming County Courthouse and Jail and the Colonial Hotel in Virginia.
The hotel was constructed using the “three-part vertical block” method, which became the dominant pattern in tall buildings during the 1920s. Three-part buildings are composed of a base, shaft and a cap, all noticeably visible.
The hotel opened as the “Walesbilt” in January 1927, shortly after the land boom had started to collapse and two years before the Great Depression began. It’s also best to note that the hotel opened around the same time the Floridan Hotel in Tampa opened, another hotel built during the Florida land boom.
In 1972, the hotel was purchased by Anderson Sun State and renamed the “Groveland Motor Inn”. The firm completely renovated the hotel and used it to host visitors to the area who were interested in Green Swamp, land sectioned off for land development. At the time there was heavy speculation in the land because of it’s close proximity to Walt Disney World and were selling for around $5,000 an acre at the time. That ended after a state cabinet designation of the swamp as an area of critical state concern, placing the land off-limits to any large land developments. The firm filed for foreclosure and the hotel was auctioned off in 1974. Despite RCI Electric purchasing the hotel, it remained empty for many years afterwards.
In 1978, the hotel was signed over to the Agape Players, a nationally known religious music and drama group, who would assume the mortgage and would pay the costs to make improvements to meet city fire and safety standards. The hotel was renamed the “Royal Walesbilt” and after extensive improvements were made, it became the headquarters for the Agape Players; using it as a teaching facility and the base from which the group launched their tours. In addition, they operated a restaurant, an ice cream parlor on the lobby floor and a “Christian hotel” on the upper floors, catering mostly to groups. The Agape Players disbanded in 1985 and put the property up for sale.
Victor Khubani, a property investor from New York acquired the property and renamed the hotel “Grand”. The hotel closed briefly in December 1988, due to a variety of code violations and causing the owner to later pay $14,000 in fines. On August 31, 1990 it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, possibly for tax exemption reasons. In October 1991, The State Fire Marshall’s Office gave the owner one year to install a new sprinkler system and in May 1993, the code enforcement board gave Khubani until March to complete the work.
In March 1994, the hotel closed due to multiple code violations and was to remain closed until a new fire sprinkler system was installed. To reopen, the fire escapes and elevator, which did not function, would have to be repaired as well. In 1995, the hotel was auctioned off to a redevelopment firm, which dismantled part of the interior for reconstruction, which was never completed.
Since then, the hotel has deteriorated, becoming an eyesore to many of the residents of Lake Wales and nicknamed “The Green Monster” for the greenish color it has acquired from over the years. In 1995, it was even jokingly mentioned to become a sacrifice to “the bomb”, an economic boom that occurred in parts of Florida where movie production companies would pay cities to blow up buildings for their movies. In 2007, the city foreclosed on the structure for more than $700,000 in unpaid code fines, with hopes in finding someone to restore it.
Development firm, Dixie-Walesbilt LLC announced plans to restore the hotel, signing into an agreement with the city of Lake Wales in February 2010. By the agreement, the city would retain ownership of the building until a defined amount of work had been accomplished. The work must be completed within 16 months and the amount of money invested must succeed at least $1.5 million. The building would then be handed off the Dixie Walesbilt LLC, where they may continue with private funding or other methods to for debt funding.
Ray Brown, President of Dixie Walesbilt LLC, planned to invest $6 million into the renovation, with original plans to put retail stores on the ground floor and using the upper floors for as many as 40 condominiums.
On June 2, 2011, the city of Lake Wales agreed to deed the building off to Ray Brown in a 4-1 vote, after meeting the requirements of the redevelopment agreement. Though Brown submitted a list of costs to the city totaling $1.66 million, Mayor Mike Carter wasn’t satisfied with the results so far, pointing out that Brown failed to repair the windows and repaint the building. Previous owners had put tar on the building and then painted over it, so much of Brown’s investment went to stripping the tar off the exterior walls.
To repaint the building, Brown would also have to resurface the hotel with hydrated lime to replicate the original skin as well as the window frames would need to be constructed of Douglas fir, red cedar and gulf cypress. According to Brown, previous owners who renovated the building rarely removed the building original elements. They carpeted over intricate tile flooring, stuck tar paper above skylights and placed modern drinking fountains in front of the originals. He estimated about 98 percent of the building is still in it’s original form.
Restoration of the building’s exterior began in January 2015 and included surface repair, pressure washing, paint removal, chemical treatment, and a comprehensive resurfacing of the exterior.
While the original plans were for turning the building into condominiums, that has since changed and current plans call for operating the building as a boutique hotel. The hotel will feature geothermal cooling as opposed to traditional air conditioning, a permanent art gallery as well as theme gallery showings throughout the year, and the best WiFi/internet in the city. The project is expected to be completed in 18 to 24 months.