Nobody Asked Me, But... No. 148;
Hotel History: The Gasparilla Inn & Club (1913), Boca Grande, Florida*
By Stanley Turkel, CMHS
The Gasparilla Inn & Club was named for the 19th century Spanish nobleman turned pirate, Jose Gaspar, whose plundered treasure was reputedly buried on Gasparilla Island.
Opened in 1913, the Inn is a grand resort built on the island's southern-most tip, named Boca Grande, or "big mouth" for the shape of the natural port. In 1885, the American Agricultural and Chemical Company (AAC) found phosphate rock just east of Gasparilla Island. This natural cleanser became a major ingredient in many detergents and the business base for development of the grand resort. Recently named to the National Register of Historic Places and a member of Historic Hotels of America, the resort occupies more than 180 acres of beautifully-landscaped grounds with breathtaking views of the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1911, it was designed by the prominent Tampa architect Francis J. Kennard who also designed the Belleview Biltmore Hotel in Belleair, Florida. First known as the Hotel Boca Grande, it was renamed The Gasparilla Inn when it opened for the 1913 season. In subsequent years, the Inn hosted J.P. Morgan, Henry duPont, Henry Plant, Henry Ford, Harvey Firestone, John Singer Sargent, and a variety of Biddles, Cabots and Drexels.
A new beach club was built in 1928 followed by a new 18-hole golf course by Barron Collier, who acquired the Inn in 1930. In 1961, the Inn was purchased by a syndicate of winter residents including duPont heir Bayard Sharp who, three years later, bought out the other members of the syndicate. Sharp's corporation allocated millions of dollars to undertake major projects including a public dock, new dormitories for the staff, new cottages, new maintenance buildings, and a new fireproof kitchen.
Under Bayard & Hugh Sharp's direction, the rooms and cottages totaled 138 rooms by 1981. Later, they traded waterfront property for the abandoned railroad right-of-way which they donated for use as a bicycle path for island residents and guests. Over the next fifteen years, the Sharps added a marina, tennis club, beach club, pro shop, and the Croquet House. In late 1994, the main dining room and adjoining servants' dining room were expanded which allowed space for parlors to be added to the guestrooms above to create suites.
Since 2006, the Gasparilla Inn & Club has consisted of 137 rooms, 63 in the main inn and 74 in the surrounding 17 cottages, buildings and villas. The Inn's impeccable reputation and service continue to attract a sterling representation of the social registry, financial tycoons, and political notables. The Inn is now owned by William Farish, former United States Ambassador to the Court of St. James and his wife, Sarah, who is the only daughter of the late Bayard Sharp.
In Florida, few towns are more secluded and unchanging as Boca Grande. The New York Times wrote about Florida's West Coast:
Wealthy people go to Boca Grande to be themselves, and the locals let them. No gawkers, no paparazzi, just the elite riding around on golf carts.... Privacy is highly valued. For visitors, the century-old Gasparilla Inn is a vintage hotel with guest cottages and a reputation for attracting aristocratic guests. But it speaks to the seasonal nature of the community that the Inn is closed during the summer tarpon season. Boca Grande's deep-water pass is home to "The World's Richest" tarpon tournament in June.
The residents love Gasparilla Island because it is a quiet seven-mile long island off the Gulf Coast. It is protected by the Gasparilla Island Conservation District Act of 1980, which was designed to preserve the ecosystems of Florida's barrier islands. The act basically limits construction to no more than five dwelling units an acre and the height of any structure to 38 feet. It also bans billboards and other exterior advertising. If you want a laid-back Southern ambience of a bygone era, Boca Grande is about as unspoiled as Florida gets.
*excerpted from my book Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi (AuthorHouse 2013)
About Stanley Turkel, CMHS
Stanley Turkel was designated as the 2014 and 2015 Historian of the Year by Historic Hotels of America, the official program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. This award is presented to an individual for making a unique contribution in the research and presentation of history and whose work has encouraged a wide discussion, greater understanding and enthusiasm for American History.
Stanley Turkel is one of the most widely-published authors in the hospitality field. Two of his hotel books have been promoted, distributed, and sold by the American Hotel & Lodging Educational Institute (Great American Hoteliers: Pioneers of the Hotel Industry and Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi). A third hotel book (Built To Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels in New York) was called "passionate and informative" by The New York Times. His fourth hotel book was described by The New York Times: "Nostalgia for the City's caravansaries will be kindled by Stanley Turkel's...fact-filled...Hotel Mavens: Lucius M. Boomer, George C. Boldt and Oscar of the Waldorf."
Built to Last: 100+ Year-Old Hotels East of the Mississippi is available for purchase from the publisher by visiting bookstore.authorhouse.com.