I recently spent a delightful overnight at the historic Belleview Inn. Located in Bellair Florida (north of St Petersburg, south of Clearwater) the Inn has long and fascinating story—riches to more riches to rags to near demolition and then salvation.
The Inn’s History
Originally built by railroad magnate Henry Plant as a destination resort, the Inn opened in 1897. The railroad ran close to the Inn’s front door and brought tourists from the northern US to Florida’s west coast.
The resort included luxury rooms and boating and swimming in the nearby bay, as well as a swimming pool, golf course, and bicycle track. (In those days, Florida bicyclists needed a track since the roads were mostly unpaved sand.)
This painting by Christopher Still envisions the Inn and grounds in those early, glory days.
The Inn was purchased from the Plant family in 1920. Expanded to over 400,000 square feet, it remained a popular destination through the 1920s and 30s, Some of the nation’s most famous athletes played on the golf course, including Babe Ruth, Bobby Jones and others.
During World War II, the hotel was requisitioned by the US Army Air Corps to house troops training at nearby airfields.
After the war, the property was completely restored. It reopened as a hotel in 1947 – this time, under the name of the Belleview-Biltmore Hotel.
Over the years the hotel was again expanded. New wings and extra levels were added, bringing it to over 800,000 SF, when it was said to be the largest occupied wooden structure in the world.
Notable guests continued to visit, including politicians, performers, and even Bob Dylan.
After celebrating its 100th anniversary in 1997, the property went through a series of ownership changes and failed plans for renovation. With the economic downturn of 2008, the hotel closed. For eight years it sat empty, deteriorating and threatened with demolition. Then, in 2016, a new group formed and made plans to preserve a portion of the inn.
Much of the building was beyond repair and had to be demolished. However, the original central structure was preserved and actually moved to a new location on the property.
How do you move a grand, hundred-year-old pinewood hotel? Check out the video to see. (Source: ABC Action News).
The Belleview Inn Today
Following the moving and reconstruction, the Inn reopened in 2019. Today, it is an historic gem set among condominium towers and two golf courses.
The Inn features over forty guest rooms, an excellent swimming pool with fountains and spa, and wide front and back porches for enjoying the breezes.
The interior spaces offer exquisite recollections of Florida’s Gilded Age.
Several times a week, a knowledgeable guide provides an hour-long history tour.
Stories are strange things. They grow from tiny seeds—characters, actions, imagined events. Often for me, a story really takes off only when two or more completely unrelatedideas come together. This seems to create a kind of magical tension as I wonder “How can these things fit together?”
My newest novella, Ghosts of Prosper Key, evolved in this way. It is the fourth of a series, the Abby Renshaw Supernatural Mysteries, so I already knew the back story. Abby is a teenage “true magician,” student of a tradition founded by her ancestors in the town of Harmony Springs in rural Florida.
At the end of the preceding novel, Ghosts of Lock Tower, Abby has succeeded in overcoming magical challenges and dangers spawned by the occult. She is living with her grandmother and starting college. She has relationships with elders in the magical circle, as well as two guys she is interested in romantically.
Idea 1: Molly is Haunted
Abby also has a best friend, an aspiring journalist named Molly Quick. All of my readers seem to love Molly, due to her bravery, insatiable curiosity, and no-nonsense approach to things. In Lock Tower, it was also revealed that Molly has native talent as a spiritual medium.
So I wanted this story to focus on Molly.
What’s her situation? She’s in her last year of high school, applying to colleges. Like many sensitive and intelligent kids, she is scared of the coming changes, scared of growing up. These fears haunt her. Because of the subject-matter of the series as a whole, these fears manifest as paranormal events.
Molly is haunted. But by what?
Idea 2: The Setting
One thing I love about this series is that it lets me write about out-of-the-way places in Florida. A location I had visited and wanted to use as a setting was Cedar Key.
This island lies off the northwest coast of the state. The area is known as the Nature Coast, as it has little population but lots of swamps, ranches, and nature preserves. Today, Cedar Key is a remote, “old Florida” tourist destination.
But the past has a different story to tell.
In the late 1800s, the Cedar Keys (as they were then called) were one of the most populous areas in Florida. The island then known as Way Key was the end point of the east-west railroad and the major port on Florida’s west coast. Fishing, oyster farms, and especially timber were major industries. Because of over logging, the economy began to decline in the 1890s. Then, in 1896, the area was devastated by one of the worst hurricanes ever to hit the United States.
So, I thought: if Molly is haunted and if our heroes visit Cedar Key, the ghosts must originate there.And if there are unhappy spirits roaming the place, they most-likely lived during that great hurricane.
Idea 3: The Tempest
So now I had the main character, her conflicts, and the setting. But something was still missing. Who were these ghosts? Why were they restless?
It had something to do with that hurricane.
For research, I read the book The Cedar Keys Hurricane of 1896: Disaster at Dawn by Alvin F. Oickle. The events were both frightening and amazing. The island that is now Cedar Key was leveled, while nearby Atsena Otie Key (then known as Depot Key) was inundated by a ten-foot storm surge.
Their whole world washed away in a night and a day.
Pondering that, I suddenly thought of a famous song that the spirit Ariel sings in Shakespeare’s The Tempest:
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Hark! now I hear them. Ding-dong, bell.
(Act I, Scene 2)
Sea change. The sea rising up and changing everything. That idea resonated strongly. My story had some relationship to The Tempest. But what?
As you might recall, the play concerns Prospero, a powerful magician who has lost his Dukedom by betrayal and now lives on a remote island with his daughter, Miranda (and spirits that he conjures).
Prospero raises a storm to wreck a passing ship which, he happens to know, contains the party of Alonso the King of Naples and Prospero’s own brother, Antonio, who usurped his place as Duke of Milan. Ferdinand, the son of the king, swims to shore and is found by Prospero. Put into service by the magician, he falls in love with Miranda, and she with him.
So: Molly haunted by ghosts, a powerful father and his daughter, a tempest and disaster, a love story.
My completely unrelated ideas had come together.
The story had taken off.
Throughout the action of Shakespeare’s play winds roar; confusion reigns and disappears; love is found; moral order is restored; and all the lost characters reunite in the end.
As Gonzalo, the loquacious king’s counselor, summarizes:
Beyond a common joy, and set it down
With gold on lasting pillars: In one voyage
Did Claribel her husband find at Tunis,
And Ferdinand, her brother, found a wife
Where he himself was lost, Prospero his dukedom
In a poor isle and all of us ourselves
When no man was his own.
(Act V, Scene 1)
These days, of course, our own world is facing dangers and changes of every kind. Will we all drown in wreckage, or will we emerge on some better shore having found ourselves in unlikely ways?
We can hope for the best. That’s what stories are for.
Since many of us are confined in quarantine these days, I thought a post about someplace beautiful and interesting would be in order. And, of all the places in this crazy world I’ve seen, there isn’t any more beautiful and interesting than St. Augustine, Florida.
What makes St. Augustine fascinating to me is the multiple layers of history. After 200 years of Spanish rule, the town was ceded to the British in 1763, and became a haven for loyalists to the British Crown during the American Revolution. In 1783, ownership passed back to Spain, but only until 1821, when Florida was acquired as a territory by the United States. In the 19th century, residents of the town survived the Seminole Wars and then the US Civil War.
Flagler College and the Lightner Museum
Starting in the 1880s, St. Augustine became a winter haven for wealthy northerners as the Florida East Coast Railway, built by industrialist Henry Flagler, opened the state to tourism. Flagler’s Ponce De Leion Hotel (now Flagler College) is one of several grand buildings from the Gilded Age that you can still visit.
Except where noted, all photos by the author.
Across the street from Flagler College is another hotel of the era, also built by Flagler and now housing the Lightner Museum of Art.
The interor courtyard of the Lightner is especially lovely, with its papyrus pond, arcades and gold fish.
At the back end of the museum is the reportedly oldest indoor swimming pool in the United States. Now, as you can see, it is a dining room.
On my visit, I asked an employee “Where’s the water?” She replied: “Wait for the next hurricane.”
The Bridge of Lions and Historic District
Down the street from these fabulous buildings is the Bridge of Lions, which crosses the bay to nearby Anastasia Island. On the docks by the bridge, you can dine at restaurants or take a harbor cruise (in which case you might see dolphins).
North of the bridge is the historic Spanish fort, the Castillo de San Marcos.
Across from the fort is part of the historic district dating back to the 1500s. There are narrow brick streets and numerous shops, houses, and courtyards.
Bordering the historic district on the North is the site of the original defensive gates. The history of the gates’ preservation and renovations makes an intriguing and amusing story, which we will save for a future post.
The South side of the historic district is also worth a walking tour, featuring buildings from Victorian times including some that are now inns and B&Bs.
At the southwest edge of the historic district is this lovely inlet:
Anastasia Island and the Lighthouse
Finally, if you venture across the Bridge of Lions to the island, you can visit the St. Augustine Lighthouse.
And if you’re fit enough to climb the spiral stairs to the top, you can enjoy quite a view:
In last month’s post, we looked at the history and exterior of Bok Tower in central Florida, which was the inspiration for Lock Tower in Abby Renshaw’s latest adventure. This month, we’ll open the famous sculpted brass door and step inside.
Note: The inside of Bok Tower is generally closed to the public. In this post, we’ve relied on published descriptions, videos, and photos, and provided appropriate credits.
The Founder’s Room
On the ground floor is the Founder’s Room: vaulted ceiling, marble carvings, colored tiles, iron staircase. Abby’s description of the inside of Lock Tower is based in part on these images:
“… this building is light and full of energy—like a living spirit…It looks like a fantastical palace or some elaborate hotel in a steampunk story”
The two levels upstairs from the Founders Room are used for mechanical and workshops. On the fourth level is the Carillon Library. The library contains many of Edward Bok’s writings and also the largest collection of carillon documentation and music in the world.
The Carillon and Bells
Above the Library level is the carillon studio, including a practice instrument for rehearsals. From there, the carillonneur climbs a spiral stair to the actual cabinet for playing the bells.
This video provides a tour of the carillon and let’s you hear some of its music:
At the climax of Ghosts of Lock Tower, Abby climbs to the parapet for a final confrontation with her evil opponents:
“My footsteps ring and echo on the metal—the black stairs and catwalks that rise into the belfry. The bells of the carillon hang from beams at many levels, some of the bells smaller than me, others enormous. …. The roof is open space except for the fan and the struts that support it, and the parapet, a walkway twelve-feet wide along the edges.”
View from the air
This video from 2016 shows a drone flyover of Bok Tower with splendid views of the surrounding landscape:
I hope you enjoyed this look inside the wonderful Bok Tower. Along with its surrounding gardens, the “Singing Tower” is one of the most unique and fascinating destinations in Florida. If you visit our state, and can tear yourself away from the theme parks and beaches for a few hours, it is well worth the trip.
At last, at last, the third Abby Renshaw Adventure, Ghosts of Lock Tower, is about to be published. The book will be posted for pre-order on Amazon by the middle of August. (Watch the Triskelion Books home page for the announcement.)
In celebration, this month’s post takes you on a visit to the real tower in Florida that was the inspiration for Lock Tower. IRL, it is called Bok Tower. (Names in the novel have been changed for the purpose of making stuff up.)
The Tower and Gardens Today
Bok Tower is located on a tall hill amid beautiful gardens in Lake Wales, Florida.
Abby’s description of Lock Tower in Chapter 1 of the novel mostly applies to Bok Tower as well:
Lock Tower might be the weirdest place in Florida.
I know that’s saying a lot.
But picture this: a pink marble bell tower, 23 stories high, set inside a moat full of goldfish. The tower stands on a hill in the middle of the state, surrounded by acres of flowery grounds with ponds, trails, and a visitor center. They say Emanuel Lock had tons of black soil trucked to the top of this sandy hill so they could plant the gardens. These days the place gets its share of tourists—those willing to drive the back roads to discover “old Florida.”
Mr. Bok, an immigrant to the US from the Netherlands, became a successful magazine publisher and Pulitzer Prize winning author. He wintered in central Florida and was enchanted by the beauty of the area and the vistas offered by Iron Mountain, a hill located near the exact center of the state.
After purchasing the hilltop land, Bok hired famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. to lay out the gardens.
Bok presented the tower and gardens as a gift to the American people on Feb. 1, 1929.
The main feature of the tower is the carillon—a musical instrument consisting of 60 bells and the mechanism to play them. The carillon at Bok Tower is among the largest in North America .
For a taste of carillon music, listen here:
Visiting Bok Tower
As Abby mentions, you can visit Bok Tower Gardens today. Head south from Orlando and get on Route 27. It’s about a 90-minute drive.
While in Lake Wales, you can also visit Spook Hill. (But that is another story.)
But what about the Inside?
In general, the interior of the tower is closed to the public. But, to be honest, gaining access is not quite as rare and difficult as it is for Abby to get inside Lock Tower in the novel.
While visiting Bok Tower a few years back, I was standing beside the moat and thinking about how cool it would be to tour the inside. In that moment, I saw two teenage girls walk across the footbridge as if they owned the place, open the tower door, and walk in.
And that was the inspiration for the opening scene of Ghosts of Lock Tower.
In the next post, we’ll look at the interior of Bok Tower, including some fabulous artwork and the spectacular view from the top. We’ll also hear more carillon music.
In Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, the first book of the Abby Renshaw adventures, Abby is a high school student troubled by nightmares and scary hallucinations.
Trying to figure out the source of these apparitions, Abby visits her grandmother in the small town of Harmony Springs, Florida. There, Abby discovers a history of occult happenings and learns that the town was founded in the late 1800s by spiritualists, including one of her ancestors.
The idea of a small town in rural Florida founded by 19th Century spiritualists came to me after reading about Cassadaga which is—you guessed it—a small town in rural Florida founded by 19th Century spiritualists.
Cassadaga is still a spiritualist center, and visitors are welcome. I toured the place with my wife a year ago, and we had a wonderful time.
The entrance to the camp is located on County Road 4139 not far from DeLand, Florida (in between Orlando and Jacksonville).
The hotel and visitor center stand on one side of the street. On the other side are shops and psychics offering readings. These are “not affiliated with the spiritualist camp.” Everyone wants to be clear about this.
The Cassadaga Hotel dates to the 1920s. In addition to hotel rooms, they offer psychic readings and healing sessions. The restaurant is called, oddly enough,“Sinatra’s.” The food on our visit was excellent and the atmosphere was atmospheric.
The visitor center has a bookstore and a meeting hall. Here you can attend classes and schedule sessions with mediums and healers. We signed up for a introductory lecture and walking tour.
The lecture was given by a young woman who identified herself as “a first level student of the camp.” She used a slide show and talked for twenty minutes about the history of spiritualism in the 19th Century. She touched on Andrew Jackson Davis, the Fox Sisters, and George Colby, the man responsible for founding Cassadaga. You can read about Colby and the founding of the camp on their official website, here.
Our lecturer also described the philosophy and belief system of spiritualism as it is still practiced in Cassadaga. She said there was an activeportal right in the corner of the lecture hall where a boy and girl spirit came through. She had not met the girl but had met the boy many times.
Following the lecture, our guide led us outside. As we walked down the road, she talked about the hotel and the different houses and their history.
This tree outside one of the houses was carved in memory of a child of one of the original families.
Seances, we learned, were often held in attics. There were special windows built into the houses to allow the spirits to come and go.
The tour ended at the temple, which our guide unlocked for us. It is a large auditorium with a stage and interesting pictures along the walls. They hold services here every Sunday.
The Fairy Garden
The tour guide also pointed out the Fairy Garden, which had an entrance up the hill and borders a forest. Following the tour, my wife and I walked up there. The energy was somewhat spooky. People had left all sorts of statues, chairs, and shiny baubles.
We walked in a ways and then felt we should not go farther.
If you enjoy off-the-beaten track destinations, and are looking for a little adventure, I can definitely recommend a visit to Cassadaga, Florida.
Newton Perry, having just helped save the world for democracy, decided that his next mission would be to clean up the natural springs and fill them with live mermaids. (Maybe there really is something to this greatest generation stuff!)
Perry recruited local young women who were good swimmers and trained them to use his breathing device, He also taught them to do water ballet, eat bananas, and drink soda underwater. And he trained them to cope with the very strong current and constantly chilly 74 degree temperature. He installed an 18-seat theater on the shore of the springs, with view windows under the surface.
Newton’s mermaid attraction opened in 1947. In those days, traffic on Highway 19 was scarce. According to the legend, the mermaids would run out to the roadside in their bathing suits when they heard a car coming and beckon the drivers to come in and watch the show.
During the 1950s, Weeki Wachee grew in popularity, and more attractions were added. Celebrities visited, movies were filmed, TV commericals beckoned northerners to “come on down.”
Then, in 1959, the park was bought by media giant ABC (the American Broadcasting Company). More money and more tourists poured in. A new 400-seat theater was built. The Mermaids performed elaborate shows, including Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, and Peter Pan.
I remember seeing the TV ads as a kid in the early 1960s and dreaming of live mermaids. Then I watched a 1963 episode of the series , Route 66, called The Cruelest Sea. In this episode, our traveling heroes visit Weeki Wachee and meet a girl who might be a real mermaid. Or is she? You can watch the show on YouTube and decide for yourself.
Weeki Wachee became part of the Florida State Park system in 2008, and today the mermaids are still going strong.
Sitting in the theater and watching them is really fun and really magical.
So if you always thought mermaids are only a legend, now you know the truth.
Note: If you are planning to visit Weeki Wachee, the mermaids will NOT be performing November 26, 2018–March 15, 2019 due to scheduled renovations at the park.
According to the brochure, the gardens date back to 1903, when George Turner, “a plumber and avid gardener,” purchased and drained a shallow lake, which had filled an ancient sinkhole. They’re called sunken, because the whole place is 10 to 15 feet below street-level. What a great use for a sinkhole, I must say.
The gardens are full of streams, ponds, and waterfalls. Along with the Flamingos you can see turtles, parrots, cockatoos and fish. But the real attractions are the trees and tropical plants from all over the world.
This limestone slab was found at the bottom when they drained the lake.
The plaque claims that anyone who sits on the stone is gifted with tranquility, inner harmony, and the talent to make things grow. All new employees of Sunken Garden sit on the stone as part of their orientation. Now that is out-of-the-box talent development, folks.
Naturally, my wife and I took the opportunity to sit on the stone. What happened later might just be a coincidence.
After touring the gardens, we had lunch in downtown St. Petersburg. Walking back to our car, we passed a craft gallery. Inside, four Tibetan Monks were creating a sand painting.
We went inside to get a better look. The painting featured a white dove at the center.
The whole experience was one of deep tranquility and inner harmony.
In Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, Harmony Springs is a small town in Florida with an occult history dating back to the late 1800s. This idea was based on several places in Florida, which were actually founded as spiritual or Utopian communities— including Ruskin, Estero, and Cassadaga.
But the inspiration for how downtown Harmony Springs looks came from visiting another old Florida town, Micanopy. This post has some pictures taken in Micanopy, to give you the flavor.
Early in the book, Abby describes looking at the town on Google Earth.
…The historic downtown looks exactly the same, and it’s amazing—a few blocks of old shops and commercial buildings, the streets lined with huge, twisted oak trees draped in moss. And Victorian houses with wraparound porches and pointed turrets. The street-level pictures make me all warm and nostalgic. I feel this ridiculous yearning to be there.
In a later chapter, Abby is walking downtown on her first morning in Harmony Springs.
While yesterday was overcast and humid, today is hot and dry. Sunlight filters through the oak leaves and casts wavy shadows on the ancient, broken sidewalks. The buildings and overgrown yards all look like they haven’t changed in a hundred years—not since the time of Annie Renshaw. But the modern world is also right in my face: cars and pickup trucks driving by, advertisements in the shop windows for the theme parks in Orlando…
This, by the way, is the Herlong Mansion in Micanopy, now a bed and breakfast. Some sources claim it is haunted.
Late in the story, Abby and her friend Molly sneak into the town’s historic cemetery at midnight.
We cruise down a winding path of hard-packed sand and crushed dead leaves, past gravestones and monuments, some well-tended, some overgrown. Black branches reach over us like twisted fingers. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I can sense all the spirits sleeping around us.