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.
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.
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.
I’m very happy to report that I am finally nearing the completion of the third of the Abby Renshaw Adventures, which will be titled Ghosts of Lock Tower. This book’s been over a year in the making and was originally planned as a novella. It took on a life of its own, as stories often do.
This month’s post is inspired by a phrase that appears in the novel. Midway through the story, something terrible happens. Abby, our protagonist, is devastated by horror and grief. She is also racked by guilt. She had a premonition something bad was going to happen, and feels she should have found a way to prevent it, or at least to warn someone.
Kevin, one of her mentors and an initiate of the same magical order as Abby, tells her this:
“You had a vision, Abby. But you didn’t have enough information to act on it. Or the power to stop what happened. I understand how you feel. But there’s a lesson in the Circle of Harmony that says ‘you can’t carry all the sorrows of the world.’ A true magician is prone to see many things. Sometimes that can include terrible evil. You cannot let yourself be crushed by it—not if you want to keep any hope of doing good.”
When I wrote that speech, the phrase carry all the sorrows of the world strongly resonated with me. I was dimly aware that it’s source was something I had read years ago, in Israel Regardie’s The Golden Dawn.
As you may know, the Golden Dawn was a magical society of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Its members included prominent occultists A.E. Waite, Dion Fortune, and Paul Foster Case, as well as artists, authors, and poets, such as Arthur Conan Doyle and W.B. Yeats. (See this article on Wikipedia for more.) The Circle of Harmony, the secret magical society in the Abby Renshaw stories, is loosely based on the Golden Dawn.
As revealed by Regardie’s book, initiates in the Golden Dawn advanced through a series of grades. Each advancement was marked by a ritual, in which the candidate was given new knowledge. The system of grades and the paths of advancement had correspondences both to the Qabala and the Tarot.
In some rituals, paths would be shown to the candidate but were not yet “open”—until the candidate had attained a higher grade. This was the case with the particular ritual I remembered. The path in question is named for the Hebrew Letter Mem, and corresponds to the Tarot Card, The Hanged Man. It is a path of sacrifice.
In this ritual, the candidate is told:
“The Portal of Mem is barred. Yet it is well to be willing for the Sacrifice itself, is as yet, not fully prepared. For in the Path of Mem rules the Hanged Man, the power of the Great Waters. Can your tears prevail against the Tide of the Sea, your might against the waves of the storm, your love against the sorrows of all the world?”
From The Golden Dawn, as revealed by Israel Regardie, Llewellyn Publications, 1990, page 212).
Surely, in the way of poetry, there are many meanings we could unwrap here. To me, an important one is this: No matter how awful the evil we witness in the world (and these days, if your eyes are open at all, you’re witnessing plenty), we must not let it destroy us.
As Kevin tells Abby, we are not required to carry all the sorrows of the world. We are only required to do the good that we can.
I think this quote from the Talmud gives the same message:
At least, that’s how I see it.
Ghosts of Lock Tower is scheduled for publication Summer of 2019
In Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, the town of Harmony Springs was founded near a group of natural springs in central Florida. An early inspiration for this setting was a trip my wife and I took in October 2014 to Silver Springs State Park, outside of Ocala, where you can still ride the famous glass-bottom boats.
In Chapter 7 of Bliss Bayou, Abby and Molly take a kayak tour of the headwaters of Harmony Springs. Here are some pictures that closely match Abby’s descriptions.
We paddle against the current, up along the swampy shoreline. Oak and ash trees stick straight up on the banks, eighty or a hundred feet tall.
The water is crystal clear, and I can see the bottom—sand and rock, with underwater grasses waving in the current.
Molly points out a wide fissure marked by tiny bubbles escaping to the surface.
“I think that one is Love Spring,” she says.
Each spring is a vent where water gushes up from the aquifer deep underground.
As we glide down the opposite shoreline, I suddenly suck in my breath. A four-foot alligator is sunning on a dead log.
“They don’t bother you if you don’t bother them,” Molly assures me.