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.
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halls was the old restaurant, large windows look out to what was probably once a beautiful landscape which has since been replaced by a parking lot.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.