The Gasparilla Inn is one of the largest surviving resort hotels in Florida, constructed originally for wealthy northerners during the time when the state became a travel and vacation destination.
On February 21, 1909, officers of the Boca Grande Land Company decided to construct a resort hotel on the island. The next day, the site was approved. The original plans for the hotel were drawn and presented in 1909 late by Augustus D. Shephard, but the officers decided to postpone building. They focused first on assuring that the Boca Grande development would be upscale and attract wealthy buyers by restricting the lots of Gulf Boulevard and Gilchrist Avenue, for the building of residences only, with a minimum construction cost of $4,000 and $3,500, respectively.
A decision to move forward with the construction of what was first known as the Hotel Boca Grande was made, and it appears to have been very near completion by January of 1911. References state that it was open for the 1911-1912 season. At first the hotel was a small two-story building with 20 rooms available only for the exclusive use of visiting directors and company. Peter Bradley, an officer of the Boca Grande Land Company, an entity of American Agricultural Chemical Company, and the owner of most of the land on Gasparilla Island, first envisioned a quiet residential island community in Boca Grande, largely for The Inn employees and stockholders. It is Bradley who is credited with engineering the island’s development by creating a major phosphate port, a center for commercial fishing and an upscale resort, namely the town of Boca Grande and its centerpiece, The Gasparilla Inn. Bradley, who maintained his office in Boston, liked to be personally involved in certain business details and he took an active role in the construction and expansion of the hotel in its first years.
The original 1911 hotel was designed in a simple Frame Vernacular style and was most likely constructed by local builders without the use of an architect. As soon as the hotel opened, stores and businesses were established to serve the hotel guests and local residents. Sunday trains brought visitors for a day at the beach. Some took advantage of the opportunity to purchase property on the island and build homes.
The officers of the Boca Grande Land Company made the decision to change the small hotel to a world-class resort. They hired prominent Tampa architect Francis J. Kennard to draw the plans for the hotel expansion, and the hotel was enlarged for the first time in 1912. Peter Bradley and his assistant, Martin Towle, personally selected and purchased the furnishings for their new resort at Wanamaker’s in New York City. The expansion lent some characteristics of the Queen Anne style of architecture that was prevalent in both residential and hotel construction during that period. The expanded hotel, renamed The Gasparilla Inn, opened for the 1913 season.
The Inn’s owners soon built a casino immediately south of the main building. The casino was not for gambling, but for parties and nightly entertainment. Tennis courts were later built adjacent to the casino on the east, and a bandstand was added nearby. A beach club with a bathhouse was built on the west side of the property on the Gulf of Mexico. A croquet lawn was laid out at the rear of the main building, and a nine-hole golf course was on a nearby U.S. military reserve under a lease agreement with the government. A greenhouse was installed to supply The Inn with flowers. Until the early 1930s, fresh water was brought by train cars to The Inn.
Along with other prominent and wealthy northern guests, many wealthy fishermen began an annual migration to the Inn, relishing its privacy and seclusion. In 1914, those men formed a fishing club named The Pelican Club.
The hotel immediately became a great success, with members of Boston society being its first guests. By 1915, accommodation requests had increased so greatly that the company again called upon Kennard to draw plans to double the size of the hotel. In December of 1915, $85,000 was appropriated for the expansion, to build servants’ quarters on the grounds, and for furnishings. Hettie Rhoda Meade, a New York interior designer, was hired to decorate The Inn. This time, the furnishings were purchased from Paine’s in Boston, and Peter Bradley again insisted upon helping make the selections.
In the early part of the century, The Inn hosted such tycoons as J.P. Morgan, Henry duPont and Florida railroad and resort tycoon, Henry Plant. Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone are also said to have been guests, as well as famous portrait painter John Singer Sargent. Cabots, Drexels and Biddles also were early guests. The railroad would continue to bring guests to the island until 1958 when the Boca Grande causeway was completed. Some guests arrived by private yachts and boats, as many guests were lured by the tarpon and an opportunity to escape from the industrial Northeast.
By 1921, Peter Bradley’s brother, Robert, had become Chairman of the Board of The American Agricultural Chemical Company, and he proceeded to promote land sales on Gasparilla Island. He hired several salesmen and even bought a sea sled to transport potential buyers from Tampa and Ft. Myers. Guests at The Inn, beachfront property owners, and some early residents were anxious and resentful of the push for sales and its potential impact on the island. To their relief, the sales season turned out to be unsuccessful. Island property owners wrote in an early brochure, in reference to the 1920s, “It had no boom and does not seek speculative investors.”
Very few homes were completed on the island during that decade. Thus, Boca Grande and the operation of The Inn were not affected by the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, except for some damage and the loss of The Inn’s original beach club in a 1921 hurricane. The new beach club was added in 1928, followed by an 18-hole golf course. The next year, Barron Collier also purchased the town’s telephone system, street lighting system and fire protection system.
Barron Collier/The Collier Corporation of Useppa Island and New York purchased The Inn and its surrounding property in March 1930 for $150,000. Collier was extremely active in Florida development, and Collier County is named for him. (Collier also purchased Useppa Island, near Gasparilla Island, and had a resort hotel there by 1911.) Upon purchasing The Gasparilla Inn, he undertook some improvements to The Inn property. He oversaw the construction of a new façade and loggia on the west side of the main building. The new façade, in the Neo-Classical style, provided a more impressive and grand guest entrance to the hotel, as well as first and second floor verandas for guests to enjoy. He also constructed ten detached cottages for guests. A fire sprinkler system was also installed. Modifications in 1931 to what became, and is presently, the primary façade and entrance on the west, gave the main entrance details of the Neo-Classical style of architecture.
A special room, The Pelican Room, was built around 1932 for use by the longstanding Pelican Club members. Their trophies were displayed and club members could share fishing stories and yarns, smoke cigars, shoot billiards or engage in conversation and perhaps, at the end of Prohibition, enjoy a cocktail. The Inn would have no public cocktail lounge until after World War II.
Replacement tennis courts were built by 1933, when Collier relocated them to allow for the construction of the new guest cottages. All except two of the historic cottages were built at the same time in 1933, most likely by the same unknown builder.
Collier died in 1939 and, in 1961, the Collier Corporation sold The Inn, cottages and surrounding property to a syndicate of winter residents. The syndicate included duPont heir Bayard Sharp. Three years later, Sharp bought out the other members of the syndicate and formed Gasparilla Inn, Inc. His contribution to the island was to stabilize and strengthen it. The Inn played an important role in doing so. Sharp kept The Inn in its traditional form. When he acquired the property, his newly formed corporation poured millions of dollars into restoring it to its original elegance. He updated and undertook major work and repairs and built a public dock for guests. He also oversaw the construction of a half dozen new cottages.
Most of the historic cottages, and all of the non-historic cottages, still retain their original floor plans. Additionally, original interior doors, door and window casings, and pine floors have survived, or have been matched to original when necessary. Cottage bathrooms have been updated several times over the years.
From 1967 to 1978, Sharp constructed buildings for maintenance use and new staff dormitories. He demolished the original kitchen in 1976, constructing one that was fireproof. Architect Mario Troncoso of Temple Terrace, Florida designed the new kitchen. Willis Smith Construction, Inc. was the contractor.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Sharp, along with approximately 300 others, was active in the Gasparilla Island Conservation and Improvement Association (GICIA). This group worked hard to preserve the old way of life on the island. Nearly all of the property owners and several of the island’s long-term guests put great effort into a fight against excessive development. They were successful in limiting the amount, density and size of future development. Because of limited development that has taken place and the designation of a local historic district to protect the historic commercial core, Boca Grande retains its unique, unspoiled, natural and historic feeling today.
In 1979, Sharp purchased The Pink Elephant Restaurant, located on the Boca Grande bayou. After extensive renovations, he reopened the restaurant offering casual and fine dining in October 1980.
The Inn and cottages totaled 138 rooms by 1981. Sharp would later increase the number of rooms in the main building by adding suites. In the early 1980s, Sharp and his brother, Hugh, traded waterfront property on the island for the abandoned railroad right-of-way, which they donated for use as a bicycle path for island guests and residents.
In early 1986, The Inn’s Beach Club was completely rebuilt, and a new indoor dining pavilion, large function room, lap pool and Tennis Clubhouse/Pro Shop were added to the resort.
Sharp continued his improvement of the resort offerings with the addition of The Inn Marina in 1989, as well as a clubhouse adjacent to the croquet lawns in the early 1990s. All these recreational offerings still exist today, although the facilities and support buildings continue to be upgraded.
In late 1994, the main dining room and adjoining original staff dining room were expanded with a 16 foot, two-story extension on the east elevation. This addition is essentially on the rear of the north wing and is not visible from Palm Avenue, toward which The Inn is primarily oriented. The second floor of the dining room expansion provided space for parlors that allowed the guest rooms above to be put into use as suites. The addition was designed by Sarasota architect George Palermo and built by Bowen Construction. With limited historic preservation guidance, the style, design, and materials used on the exterior and interior of the addition were matched exactly to those used in the original dining room.
In 1997, Sharp created a trust to ensure that The Inn would be maintained and run as a working hotel after his death. His final addition to the resort property came in 2000 with the construction of a state-of-the-art Spa/Salon facility, complete with a Fitness Center and exercise studio.
Sharp, as the principal of the corporation that owned The Inn, remained personally active in its management from the time he acquired the property until his death in 2002. During this time, he maintained a commitment to keep The Inn unspoiled. He aspired to preserve the resort and its grounds as a dignified yet comfortable destination for its seasonal regulars.
Today, The Inn consists of 137 rooms, 63 in the main Inn and 74 in the surrounding cottages. The Gasparilla Inn & Club continues to be known for its impeccable service and its unique historic old Florida feel and atmosphere today.
The Gasparilla Inn’s founders and patrons understood the delicate challenges of building the village without destroying the natural wonders of the island, from its fishing preserves to sugary sands. Through the years, this spirit has been passed on from generation to generation of owners, guests and residents on the island.
A good representation of the Social Register and financial tycoons and politicians of the day, at one time or other, have been guests at The Inn over the years. The resort employs more than 325 people on a seasonal basis and continues many of its original traditions, including afternoon tea during Social Season. The Inn is presently owned by the William Farish family. William Farish is a former United States Ambassador to The Court of St. James, and his wife, Sarah, is the only daughter of the late Bayard Sharp.