Famous Florida Resorts Served Soldiers in Time of War
By Jon Wilson
The Breakers, the Vinoy and the Don CeSar among others are famous Florida resorts that were training and convalescent centers during World War II.
The affluent traveler’s delight for decades, the former Tampa Bay Hotel’s arresting peculiarities no longer surprise leisure lovers requiring posh accommodation. Nowadays, the old hotel’s minarets and domes loom over brick ramparts housing University of Tampa offices and classrooms – and the Henry B. Plant Museum, named for the Gilded Age industry captain who pushed his railroad to Tampa in 1884.
Among other claims to fame, the hotel, built in 1891 for $2.5 million, housed Theodore Roosevelt and other high-ranking officers when the Rough Riders prepared to invade Cuba in 1898. Closed as a hotel since 1933, the national historic landmark remains a destination for students and history buffs.
It is one of several famous Florida resorts that served military roles and which remain in themselves popular destinations.
Two more come quickly to mind across Tampa Bay in Pinellas County.
The Vinoy Renaissance Resort in St. Petersburg and the Loews Don CeSar in St. Pete Beach both blossomed during the Florida real estate bloom of the 1920s. Both became military sites during World War II, languished as post-war travel habits changed, closed their doors – and then leaped to splendid, new life in the late 20th Century.
Combos played "Yes Sir, That’s My Baby" when the Vinoy opened in 1925. In 1942, it became an Army Air Corps training center where fledgling military cooks and bakers learned their craft.
Reopening as a hotel after the war, the Vinoy operated for nearly 30 years before closing. It became an abandoned, downtown eyesore, a mosquito breeding ground and a haven for the homeless.
But a hotel chain spent $93-million to restore the Vinoy as a luxury hotel, and it reopened in 1992 with an 18-hole golf course, a 74-slip marina, 12 tennis courts, five restaurants and 361 guest rooms.
Known as the “Pink Lady” or the “Pink Palace,” the Don CeSar opened in 1928 and immediately won a reputation as a getaway for the rich and famous, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Clarence Darrow, F. Scott Fitzgerald and perhaps Al Capone.
As so many hotels did, the Don became a World War II military facility, serving as a hospital from 1942 to 1944, when it became a convalescent center for wounded warriors. After the war, the hotel became a Veterans Administration regional office, which closed in 1969. It reopened as a hotel in 1973 and underwent renovations that have turned it into a posh spot with a signature restaurant. The national landmark is now known as the Loews Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa.
The swanky Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables is another creation of the Florida boom, opening in 1926 as the Paul Whiteman orchestra played to several thousand guests. It was said to have the world’s largest pool – where Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller gave swimming lessons.
The Biltmore survived a hurricane the same year, got through the Great Depression and became an Army hospital during the war. It also served as a VA center before temporarily closing in 1968. Now a national landmark, the hotel has an 18-hole golf course and its own culinary academy.
Seventy-six miles north is Palm Beach’s Breakers Hotel, where World War II Coast Guard Women’s Reserve enlistees learned to swab decks by practicing in the halls of the hotel that railroad magnate Henry Flagler first built in 1896, calling it the Palm Beach Inn.
Two fires destroyed earlier versions, but the grand hotel that reopened in 1926 was far more opulent than any of its predecessors. Now it occupies 140 acres of oceanfront property, offers a half-mile of private beach and boasts 25 private beach bungalows with concierge service.
Another 67 miles up the Atlantic Coast is Fort Pierce, home of the National Navy UDT- SEAL Museum, the birthplace of frogmen. During the war, thousands of volunteers trained as members of Navy underwater demolition teams. The frogmen eventually evolved into the elite force recognized worldwide, the SEALS.
Lakeland and other parts of Polk County provided training grounds for hundreds of American and English airmen. The Fantasy of Flight event venue recalls the World War II pilots with restored P51 Mustangs, a Curtis TC40, a B-26 Marauder and a B-24 Liberator.
Pensacola and St. Augustine, Florida’s oldest cities, are troves of military history dating from the Spanish era that began in 1513.
St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos is among the nation’s most famous forts. The city’s Ponce de Leon Hotel, another Flagler creation completed in 1888 that is now the centerpiece of Flagler College, was a Coast Guard training center.
Pensacola’s sites include 19th century Fort Pickens and Fort Barrancas, and the Pensacola Naval Air Station is home to the Blue Angels, the Navy’s famed flight demonstration squadron.
For more information about Florida’s military history, visit vivaflorida.org/Explore/Victory-Florida