Back to the Beginning: A Brief History of Treasure Island and Bilmar Hotel

The Bilmar Beach Resort
Photo courtesy of Bilmar Beach Resort

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St. Petersburg’s Treasure Island had a sudden beginning—and an interesting series of events that led to its fantastical name.

It was on Saturday, September 25,1848, that an unnamed hurricane created the island by cutting a 200-yard channel to the north, now known as John’s Pass. This same storm also separated Isle of Palms and Isle of Capri from the rest of the barrier island.

According to the Treasure Island Historical Society, Thomas F. Pierce was the first landholder in Treasure Island. Pierce sold much of the land that was previously bought from the state for $1.25 per acre to Whitey Harrell. Whitey and his wife opened the first hotel with 25 guest rooms called the Coney Island.

In 1918, in a marketing scheme to increase real estate sales, several property owners secretly buried a couple of wooden chests filled with “hidden treasure” that two Coney Island guests with prior knowledge of the burial location “discovered.” Though the stunt took place on what is St. Pete Beach today, because the guests were staying at the Coney Island, word quickly spread about Treasure Island. The name stuck.

After very little development in the 1920s due to no bridge access, several developers attempted to find funds to construct a Central Avenue bridge. To secure the land on the St. Petersburg side, two developers traded the land east of the Central Avenue Causeway for 500 feet of beach front land, and to this day St. Petersburg owns 500 feet of Treasure Island Beach at 112th Avenue. The bridge finally opened in November 1939.

In 1948 the Sands Motel became the first of the turn-of-the-century “modern” motels that are still a part of the landscape today. Shortly thereafter, Treasure Island became referred to as the “Million Dollar Mile.” The Downey family were the original owners and operators of The Sands until 2017. The new owner remains committed to upgrading the existing buildings and not redeveloping the land.

By 1955, the four separate communities of Sunset Beach, Isle of Palms, Isle of Capri, and Sunshine merged to create the City of Treasure Island. The current government style of using a City Manager reporting to the Mayor and Commissioners was not implemented until 1964 by a majority vote of the city residents. At the time, Treasure Island was considered one of the most well-planned and progressive beach communities in the state.

The changes in 1955 set the stage for what would become a community staple, the Bilmar Hotel.

Birth of the Bilmar

Russ Baltz, a resident of Grand Haven, Michigan, visited his father in St. Pete Beach and, though he enjoyed the area, he found the southern island too busy for his taste. So in 1959 he secured 550 feet of Gulf front property in the heart of Treasure Island. With some very creative funding—including five couples that were his friends and a forever “unnamed” source—the construction of the first of three phases became a reality.

With only $17 in the bank, which was actually a deposit for a future reservation, the Bilmar Beach Resort opened its doors on December 16, 1961. The resort had 64 rooms, a large swimming pool, beachfront café and soon after the Grog Shop—named after Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island, where the Pirates would gather.

With great success the Grog Shop was paying most of the bills but was still barely appeasing the “unnamed loan source.” By 1964 an additional 49 rooms were added with the construction of the four-story building which added a much-needed revenue source. Then in 1969 Baltz was able to complete the purchase of the last 150 feet of the property and begin construction of the eight-story tower.

When finished in 1971, the hotel added an additional 60 rooms, eighth floor owners apartments, 3,500-square-foot Sunset Ballroom and also became the first resort on the Gulf with two swimming pools.

The name of the Bilmar was actually used before the resort in Treasure Island was developed. In 1947, Baltz had converted an old dance hall to a small motel and entertainment complex on Lake Michigan and named it Bilmar after his son Bill and Daughter Margot. Later, Bill graduated from Cornell School of Hospitality and took over management of the Bilmar Beach Resort.

After 39 years of ownership, in 2000 the Baltz family made the heartfelt decision to sell the Bilmar. On a handshake deal to not demolish the buildings and build condominiums, a Cleveland-based apartment management company bought the Bilmar. Using an Orlando management company, the new owner set out to bring the Bilmar up to the new standards expected in the new millennium.

The first major statement they made was the painting of the three buildings to the bright yellow color that became known around the world when people thought of Treasure Island. Also, terribly in need of major renovation, they decided to demo the old Sunset Ballroom and Grog Shop. They flip-flopped the concepts by adding Sloppy Joe’s on the Beach in the former ballroom location and building a new modern ballroom where the former Grog Shop had been.

Two years later, a much more aggressive renovation began with the complete remodeling of all 167 guest rooms. This included taking the rooms down to the studs and rebuilding with two guest room themes: Island Breeze, in heavy brown and tropical green décor, and Sea Side Cottage with white furnishings, brightly colored blues and tropical colors. It was truly a new era for the Bilmar Beach Resort.

During this renovation, the Bilmar became a Condo-Hotel. Sales were brisk in fall of 2005 and 2006, but the national housing crisis quickly slowed the sales. Today only 43 of the 167 rooms are privately owned and only one of those are not in the Bilmar’s Rental Program. Despite the weakened economy, the Bilmar saw record growth of revenues over the next several years. Property improvements continued with the support of the Condominium Association and resort management.

A New Era Begins

In 2014, the Cleveland ownership decided to put the Bilmar up for sale as its apartment building business was expanding and a full-service resort did not fit into their portfolio. Several companies were interested in purchasing the Bilmar with its resort amenities, proven wedding and meetings market, and successful Sloppy Joe’s operations. After months of discussions, California-based Clearview Hotel Capital became the new owners of the landmark resort. Traditionally, it co-owned large nationally flagged properties throughout the country; this was a somewhat new venture to add an independent hotel to its collection. The team of hotel experts quickly identified the area needing immediate enhancements .Many back of the house improvements were done, as well as the complete remodeling of the main lobby area and Beach Front Café. Additional amenities were added including kayak, paddleboarding, beachfront fire pits, bicycles, a four-person surrey bike and more.

The ownership created their own management company, Dolphin Hotel Management, in 2016 and the Bilmar was the first property in the portfolio. Months later they added two Marriott properties in Old Town San Diego, a 600-room Holiday Inn Express in Waikiki on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, and most recently the historic River Street Inn in Savannah, Georgia.

“Noting the growth of tourism and increased development in Pinellas County, we realized the time had come to start a new chapter of success at the Bilmar Beach Resort,” says Bilmar General Manager Clyde Smith.

Working with Chicago’s Getty’s Group for the guest rooms and New Jersey KKAD Architecture & Design, plans were made to bring an upscale “beach chic” look to the Bilmar. Features included expanding the bathrooms in most rooms, installing backlit mirrors, replacing all tubs and adding 30 walk-in showers to meet a growing request. Bright, fun color schemes in the furniture and drapery selections added to the “Instagram moment” the designers were seeking.

The exterior renovations included removing architecture features that dated the building, the addition of vertical wood-looking Dryvit panels, and finally the changing of the famous yellow color to dove gray and alternating Caribbean cool blues to complete the transformation.

Although the threat of Hurricane Irma delayed the start date, the contractors and team were able to complete the project in January 2018.

“Since then, our many repeat guests have given us two thumbs up for once again bringing the look and feel of the Bilmar to a modern resort experience,” Smith says. “Maintaining a successful resort takes more than regular renovations and good funding by commitment owners. It takes a team of hospitality professionals to deliver the services today’s sophisticated travelers expect.”

Smith says the Bilmar team is proud to have put together a group of employees that are fully committed to delivering outstanding guest service to each and every guest and restaurant patron that comes to the Bilmar Hotel. “Supported by an experienced group of managers with over 250 years of hospitality experience we know it is the people that made the difference.”

The Bilmar continues to be a popular destination hotel for visitors and locals alike, with its central location on the beach and easily accessible by Central Avenue, a straight shot seven miles from Downtown St. Pete. But perhaps the hotel is best known as a hotspot for the many diverse activities that take place at John’s Pass.

“We are proud of our team and thankful for the support we receive from Dolphin Hotels and the entire Tampa Bay community that makes our destination what it is,” Smith says. “It is our goal to keep the Bilmar the number one resort to get away and get it all.”

For more information on the Bilmar Beach Resort, click here.

Check out other great areas of St. Pete, click here.

**Disclaimer: There is a good chance that this post contains affiliate or sponsor links. If you make a purchase through them, we may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you (for which we are extremely grateful).

Also, while we do our best to highlight LGBTQ-friendly destinations and businesses, info provided is based solely on personal experience and recommendations by community partners. We hope that nobody experiences discrimination or homophobia while visiting Florida and beyond, but we make no guarantees. Please inform us if you experience discrimination or homophobia while visiting any destination so we can make updates to our recommendations.

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june, 2024

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