The DeSoto Hotel

By | July 11, 2013

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desoto-belle-haven-hotelSarasota was hardly more than a small fishing village in 1886 when Col. John Hamilton Gillespie arrived from Scotland. Gillespie, representing the Florida Mortgage & Investment Company, arrived in Sarasota in 1886 to see what could be done to improve the company’s investment in Sarasota. Aside from improving the streets and the “Downtown” area, Gillespie wanted to build a company hotel for “people of wealth and influence.” He was convinced that this would bring visitors and investors to the Sarasota area.

The hotel was started at the south end of Main Street, at the bay-front, just south of the company’s store. Gillespie wanted the hotel to be the finest on the entire west coast of Florida. To speed construction of the building, Gillespie hired additional carpenters and laborers. Lumber for the hotel was brought by schooner from Cedar Key and Apalachicola. The hotel would be three stories high, with an observation tower on top. It contained thirty bedrooms and a large lobby and dining room. Gillespie himself named the hotel the De Soto.

On February 2, 1887, after completion of the hotel, Gillespie leased the hotel to Alfred P. Jones and his wife, Annie R., of Cedar Key to manage. The lease provided that Jones should pay 25% of the net profits for the first year and 40% for the next four years. They had previous hotel experience, having managed a hotel in Thonotosassa before coming to Sarasota. The De Soto was opened with a grand ball on February 25, 1887. The celebration was the biggest social event ever held south of Manatee. More than two hundred people attended the opening, which lasted until daybreak the next morning.

After enjoying a brief period of prosperity, Sarasota entered an economic slump around 1890 and the De Soto suffered from lack of paying guests. It closed down for several years during the 1890s because no manager could get enough guests to keep it open. The town struggled to keep the tourist economy going. The De Soto Hotel would not regain its former standing as a winter home for the elite until after 1900.

In 1899, the Florida Mortgage & Investment Company decided to sell the De Soto to a Tampa syndicate. The new owners held on to it until they sold to the Southern Investment Company on October 6, 1902. The new owners made improvements to the hotel and changed the hotel’s name from the De Soto Hotel to the Belle Haven Inn.

As Sarasota struggled through the early 1900s, the Belle Haven Inn survived. However, by 1910, the hotel was in need of repair. In 1911 an influx of new people to the Sarasota area began. To handle the additional traffic, a new wing was added to the hotel in 1911. The Hotel changed hands again in 1912 when Ralph Caples and John Burket purchased the property and they in turn sold it to C.T. Whittle and son in 1914.

The Belle Haven Inn enjoyed prosperity during the next 10 years. During the beginning of the Florida Land Boom, the Belle Haven Inn was on a prime piece of downtown property. The hotel was bought for reported price of $500,000 in 1925 and would be replaced by the American National Bank building, later named the Orange Blossom Hotel. As Sarasota’s first “luxury” hotel, the De Soto/Belle Haven Inn was part of the development of Sarasota from a small fishing village to a modern city.

Courtesy of Sarasota History Alive!


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