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Community Sunday Favorites: The Rise and Fall of the Pink Palace

Built in 1925, the Manatee River Hotel was created of materials from all over the United States at a cost of $1.4 million. Because steel beams supported the entirely concrete structure, it was considered to be fireproof.

This week, developers announced a January 7 groundbreaking ceremony for the $15 million redux of the landmark hotel long known as the Pink Palace. Originally built in 1925 at a cost of $1.4 million, the Manatee River Hotel was known as the “Queen of the West Coast” because of its distinctive pink color and the elegant antique furniture housed within. The famous hotel eventually came to lie in ruin, but was once a crown jewel of the gulf coast.

The former Manatee River Hotel, located downtown at 309 W. 10th St., has been part of the Bradenton skyline and the most distinctive gateway structure for 87 years. While its dilapidated towers and crumbling walls now house only vagrants and pests, the building, which is now currently thought to be an eyesore, was once filled with prosperity and promise. Stars and socialites used to rub elbows with bootlegging gangsters and gun-slinging racketeers at the swanky rooftop parties that were held exclusively at the elegant hotel.

Railroad money of the Van Swerigen family built the Manatee River Hotel in 1925 at the end of the Florida Boom, when upscale facilities were popping up all over the coastline in order to promote river commerce. Van Swerigen spared no expense when constructing the hotel and imported materials from all over the United States at a cost of  $1.4 million. Because steel beams supported the entirely concrete structure (an eclectic mixture which included coral, hemp and horsehair), it was considered to be fireproof. Construction took three years to complete due to the lavish decorations  that went into the project.

The “Queen of the West Coast” featured 200 staterooms, four exclusive tower studios, several ballrooms for social events, and a rooftop garden with a dance floor. During a time of prohibition, celebrities utilized the strategic location to dance the Charleston, toast bootlegged champagne and sip infamous Manatee moonshine.

Rumor has it that A-list stars like Rita Hayworth, Clark Gable, Tyrone Power, Babe Ruth, Al Capone, Dizzy Dean and even President Hoover were guests at the upscale resort. During the late 1920s, Palmetto had a professional baseball stadium where the Buffalo Bisons played. At that time, team members of the St. Louis Cardinals, the Philadelphia Phillies, Milwaukee Braves preferred the “Queen” as their primary lodging.

Several years after its completion, Barron Collier purchased the Pink Palace as part of the Florida Collier Coast Hotel chain that was later purchased by the Jefferson Standard Life Insurance Company. This firm operated the hotel until 1942, when Charles E. Allison, a St. Petersburg resident, bought it outright.  

Allison and his wife Irene were avid antique collectors. The completely remodeled the hotel in 1948 and 1949 converting the rooftop gardens into a sundeck and renovating the rooms for 170 guests. Furniture in the hotel was flown in from all over the world. The Allison’s even incorporated papal chairs from the famous Cathedral of Milan into their décor. Charles was also the manager of his family’s hotel, the Hotel Allison in St. Petersburg as well as the Thorwald Hotel in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

In the 1960s, more and more tourists began to prefer modern hotels and the grand registry began to decline. In 1966, Irene sold it to Florida Retirement Homes Inc. for $260,000 and it was renovated to accommodate fixed-income seniors. All remembrance of the glittery ballroom parties of the “Queen” was lost after the company changed the distinct color to a more conservative white.

Charles Lavin purchased the hotel in 1985. He and his wife had it repainted to the the original flamingo pink color, although many residents objected to the garish hue. But the electric pink would never again attracted the limousines filled with flamboyant flappers that used to dance to jazz all night above an illuminated city. It was again remodeled, and again inhibited by elderly residents dependent on a structured repetitive lifestyle for the rest of their existence -- nothing like the one the guests in the glory days experienced.

Four floors of the Pink Palace were re-opened to the public following a $2 million renovation in 1997. Then in 2005, the River Grande Development Inc. gutted the facility after borrowing $2.625 million in December 2005 to finance his $3.5 million purchase of the historic Pink Palace and convert it into upscale condos. However, the developer ran out of funding and defaulted on the loan -- since then the structure has remained vacant. In 2010, Regions Bank won a $3.1 million foreclosure judgment against River Grande Development Inc.

Bradenton Widewaters Inc. purchased the note from the bank and expected the city to offer funding for renovating the structure deemed as "slum." In a surprise move, the Bradenton Downtown Development Authority returned a much lower than previously expected offer of around $5-6 million for assisting with the renovation of the property and the project looked doomed. The developer, Widewaters Group Inc., eventually agreed to restore the hotel with much less public money -- about $1 million upfront and another $1.6 in tax abatements, ground level improvements and parking spaces in the county's nearby garage. The developer has said the renovated property will be operated as a Hampton Inn and Suites, and will no longer be pink upon restoration, but rather the traditional beige common to the upmarket chain.

Editor's note: Portions of this column were previously published in Sunday Favorites


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