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Dixie Walesbilt Hotel | Photo © 2016 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com

Dixie Walesbilt Hotel

Location Class:
Built: 1926 | Abandoned: 1994
Historic Designation: National Register of Historic Places (1990)
Status: Under Renovation
Photojournalist: David Bulit

Dixie Walesbilt Hotel

The Dixie Walesbilt Hotel is one of many skyscrapers built in the 1920s that still stand today. Since its construction, it has gone under several renovations and name changes such as the Groveland Motor Inn, the Hotel Royal Walesbilt, and the Grand Hotel. The building operated under the direction of the Griner Hotel Inc. in Jacksonville, founded by hotelier Charles Benjamin Griner, and was part of the “Dixie” chain of hotels that include the Hotel Dixie-Grande in Bradenton and the Hotel Dixie-Pelican in Stuart. Griner also owned the Seminole Hotel in Jacksonville and would later acquire the 310 West Church Street Apartments and operate it as the Griner Hotel.

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Charles Benjamin Griner

Built in 1926 at the cost of $500,000, the developers found financing through a stock-sale campaign in the local business community. The group of original co-owners and investors included Florida Governor John Wellborn Martin, silent screen stars Thomas Meighan, Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, and Clara Bow, as well as famous Hollywood attorney Nathan Burkan and Hollywood producer Victor Heerman.

Its allure not only brought a touch of Hollywood but also intrigue and scandals. Notorious American gangster Al Capone, boss of the Chicago Mafia, was said to have preferred staying at the Dixie Walesbilt due to its network of tunnels located underneath the building. It was also rumored that the hotel had a direct connection with the Trafficante crime family of Tampa.

Emmett Donnely, an attorney whose office was located in the hotel, was involved in at least four murder-for-hire plots going back to 1932. Donnely collected $20,000 from a life insurance policy on former mayor Joseph Beal who was murdered by a shotgun blast fired from his back porch. Donnely was initially charged with conspiracy to commit first-degree murder but was later acquitted due to lack of evidence. Having continued his law practice in Lake Wales, Donnely was arrested again in 1954 for hiring a millhand from Pensacola to kill three wealthy clients of his. After his release pending further investigation, Donnely died by shooting himself in the head.

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Emmett Donnely

The hotel opened as the “Hotel Dixie-Walesbilt” on January 14, 1927, just as the land boom had begun to collapse. A contest was held to select the name of the hotel. The winning name was submitted by Elizabeth Quaintance, the second executive secretary of the city’s chamber of commerce.

The building’s architecture, masonry vernacular with hints of Mediterranean-Revival, is also a good example of the time it was built. It was designed by two well-known architects at the time, Fred Bishop who designed the Byrd Theatre in Virginia, and D. J. Phipps, who designed both the Wyoming County Courthouse and Jail and the Colonial Hotel in Virginia. The Dixie Walesbilt was constructed using the “three-part vertical block” method, which became the dominant pattern in tall buildings during the 1920s. Three-part buildings are composed of a base, shaft, and cap, all noticeably visible.

The hotel’s interior featured shopping arcades, Italian-made ceilings and column capitals, a drinking fountain by Ernest A. Batchelder, Georgia Pink and Vermont Verde antique marble floors by Georgia Marble Company, a wrought iron balustrade, and a central mezzanine.

Dixie Walesbilt Hotel postcard
A postcard featuring two colored images of the Singing Tower, later known as Bok Tower, and the Walesbilt Hotel in Lake Wales, Fla., ca. 1930-1940. Abandoned Atlas Archives

Groveland Motor Inn

In 1972, the City of Lake Wales released its plans to beautify and redevelop the city’s downtown area. Upon completion, the project costs totaled $500,000 with 70% being financed by the city’s taxpayers and the rest by the area’s business owners. With this in mind, the hotel was purchased by Anderson Sun State, owned by E. E. Wilson and a trustee of the group, and renamed the “Groveland Motor Inn.” The firm completely renovated the hotel. All the wiring, plumbing, and fixtures in the building were replaced, air conditioning was installed, the building’s exterior was repainted, and new furniture was bought.

The hotel was used to host visitors to the area who were interested in Green Swamp; land that was sectioned off for land development. At the time there was heavy speculation in the land because of its close proximity to Walt Disney World and was selling for around $5,000 an acre at the time. That ended after a state cabinet designation of the swamp as an area of critical state concern, placing the land off-limits to any large land developments.

After operating for less than two years, the building was foreclosed and the hotel was auctioned off in 1974. Despite RCI Electric purchasing the hotel, it remained empty for many years afterward.

Dixie Walesbilt Hotel arcade 1
The downstairs arcade at the Dixie Walesbilt Hotel upon completion of its renovation. The Orlando Sentinel
Groveland Motor Inn Postcard
A postcard featuring the Dixie Walesbilt Hotel at the time known as the Groveland Motor Inn which operated for just two years. The back reads, “Central Florida’s most convenient hotel—100 beautiful rooms—all double beds—color tv—pool—superb dining facilities—nightly dining and entertainment—exceptional banquet and convention facilities up to 125—major credit cards accepted—40 minutes from Walt Disney World—nearby shopping, direct dial phones—warm and informal atmosphere.Abandoned Atlas Archives

Hotel Royal Walesbilt

In 1978, the hotel was signed over to the Agape Players, a nationally known religious music and drama group, who would assume the mortgage and would pay the costs to make improvements to meet city fire and safety standards. The hotel was renamed the “Royal Walesbilt” and after extensive improvements were made, it became the headquarters for the Agape Players; using it as a teaching facility and the base from which the group launched their tours. In addition, they operated a restaurant, an ice cream parlor on the lobby floor, and a “Christian hotel” on the upper floors, catering mostly to groups. The Agape Players disbanded in 1985 and put the property up for sale.

Royal Walesbilt
A real picture postcard featuring a bellhop in front of the Dixie Walesbilt Hotel, then known as the Hotel Royal Walesbilt. The back reads, “Home of the Agape’ Players” “Distinctively Christian” Convenient, minutes from Walt Disney World, featuring: Daisy’s “1890” Ice Cream Parlour, King’s Table Dining Room, Walesbilt Gift Shop, Custom Design Shop, Kuntry Kitchen Health Food Store.” c. 1978. Abandoned Atlas Archives

Hotel Grand and Closure

Victor Khubani, a property investor from New York acquired the property and renamed it the “Hotel Grand.” The hotel closed briefly in December 1988, due to various code violations causing the owner to later pay $14,000 in fines. This was just the start of multiple issues and violations in the building throughout its short-lived operation. On August 31, 1990, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. In October 1991, The State Fire Marshall’s Office gave the owner one year to install a new sprinkler system and in May 1993, the code enforcement board gave Khubani until March to complete the work.

In March 1994, the hotel closed due to multiple code violations and was to remain closed until a new fire sprinkler system was installed. To reopen, the fire escapes and elevator, which did not function, would have to be repaired as well. In 1995, the hotel was auctioned off to a redevelopment firm, which dismantled part of the interior for reconstruction, which was never completed.

Hotel Dixie Walesbilt postcard
Postcard for the Dixie Walesbilt Hotel, postmarked February 18, 1929. Abandoned Atlas Archives

Since then, the hotel has deteriorated, becoming an eyesore to many of the residents of Lake Wales and nicknamed “The Green Monster” for the greenish color it has acquired over the years. In 1995, it was even jokingly mentioned to become a sacrifice to “the bomb,” an economic boom that occurred in parts of Florida where movie production companies would pay cities to blow up buildings for their movies. In 2007, the city foreclosed on the structure for more than $700,000 in unpaid code fines, with hopes of finding someone to restore it.

Redevelopment and Restoration

The development firm Dixie-Walesbilt LLC announced plans to restore the hotel, signing into an agreement with the city of Lake Wales in February 2010. By the agreement, the city would retain ownership of the building until a defined amount of work had been accomplished. The work must be completed within 16 months and the amount of money invested must succeed at least $1.5 million. The building would then be handed off to the Dixie Walesbilt LLC, where they may continue with private funding or other methods for debt funding.

Ray Brown, President of Dixie Walesbilt LLC, planned to invest $6 million into the renovation, with original plans to put retail stores on the ground floor and use the upper floors for as many as 40 condominiums.

On June 2, 2011, the city of Lake Wales agreed to deed the building off to Ray Brown in a 4-1 vote, after meeting the requirements of the redevelopment agreement. Though Brown submitted a list of costs to the city totaling $1.66 million, Mayor Mike Carter wasn’t satisfied with the results so far, pointing out that Brown failed to repair the windows and repaint the building. Previous owners had put tar on the building and then painted over it, so much of Brown’s investment went to stripping the tar off the exterior walls.

Dixie Walesbilt Hotel | Photo © 2016 Bullet, www.abandonedfl.com
A fence and security system was installed to prevent further break-ins

To repaint the building, Brown would also have to resurface the hotel with hydrated lime to replicate the original skin, as well as the window frames, which would need to be constructed of Douglas fir, red cedar, and gulf cypress. According to Brown, previous owners who renovated the building rarely removed the building’s original elements; the intricate tile flooring had been carpeted over, tar paper was stuck to the skylights, and placed modern drinking fountains in front of the originals. Brown estimated about 98 percent of the building is still in its original form.

Restoration of the building’s exterior began in January 2015 and included surface repair, pressure washing, paint removal, chemical treatment, and a comprehensive resurfacing of the exterior.

While the original plans were for turning the building into condominiums, that has since changed and current plans call for operating the building as a boutique hotel. The hotel will feature geothermal cooling as opposed to traditional air conditioning, a permanent art gallery as well as theme gallery showings throughout the year, and the best WiFi/internet in the city. The project is expected to be completed in 18 to 24 months.

Photo Gallery


National Register of Historic Places. (August 31, 1990). Dixie Walesbilt Hotel

The Orlando Sentinel. (September 30, 1973 p. 11). Lake Wales Beautification Project Attracting Statewide Attention

The Tampa Tribune. (May 11, 1977 p. 6). Lake Wales’ Tallest Building Up For Sale


David Bulit is a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. He has published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and continues to advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. His work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of his work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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