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Davis Islands always made room for visitors

Tribune correspondent
Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 08:17 AM

Davis Islands was conceived, in part, as an escape from reality. Vibrant tropical landscaping, exotic architecture and a wide variety of amenities awaited residents and visitors alike.

To accommodate as many people as possible, David P. Davis included a number of apartment buildings and hotels for tourists and the island's seasonal and year-round residents. By placing these larger structures along Davis Boulevard, he also created a buffer between that busy street — and the commercial district on East Davis Boulevard — and the single-family homes that he saw as the lifeblood of Davis Islands.

Probably the most recognizable apartment and hotel buildings are the Mirasol, Palazzo Firenze (Palace of Florence), Palmarin Hotel (now known as Hudson Manor), and the Spanish Apartments. They embody the grandeur of Davis Islands, each reflective of a different component within the overall Mediterranean Revival style of architecture.

The largest and most elaborate is the Mirasol, which originally included a small marina, large lobby, dining area and penthouses. The fully-restored Palace of Florence first opened as a seasonal hotel, but it now serves as an apartment building. Hudson Manor also started out as a hotel, featuring a restaurant that was popular with Davis Islands residents and visitors for decades.

Some early multifamily buildings, notably the Biscayne Hotel and Venetian Apartments, have since been demolished. The Biscayne was located along Biscayne Boulevard, serving first as a hotel, then as apartments, and finally as the campus for Berkeley Preparatory School. The building was demolished after Berkeley moved out, making way for a series of townhomes that occupy the site today.

The Venetian Apartments were at the northern tip of Davis Islands, on the west side of Davis Boulevard. The Venetian was demolished to allow for construction of the second Davis Islands Bridge. A condominium also occupies a portion of the old apartment site.

Smaller apartment buildings, such as the Augustine and Columbia apartments on Columbia Drive, Flora Dora Apartments and Boulevard Apartments (now the Ritz Apartments, completed shortly after Davis' death) on Davis Boulevard still are in use. Though smaller and less elaborate than their larger counterparts, they are just as important to Davis Islands' history and architectural heritage.

Davis sold his Davis Islands investment, shortly before his death in 1926, to the Boston engineering firm Stone & Webster. By the time of the sale, most of the major hotel projects were under construction or already were complete. Only one of the original hotels planned did not get off the drawing board. The Davis Arms Hotel was projected to sit between Blanca Avenue and the waterfront at the western end of Biscayne Boulevard, but it did not have the financial backing necessary to ensure its completion.

The hotel market did not live up to the high expectations placed on it by D. P. Davis Properties. By 1929 many operated well below total occupancy, and one, the Palace of Florence, functioned as an apartment/hotel. The Biscayne Hotel represented the only closure, in late 1929-early 1930, only to reopen in 1931.

The financial picture was not totally bleak following the real estate bust of 1926 to 1927. One area of marked growth occurred in the rental market. Davis Islands featured six apartment buildings in 1927: the Venetian Apartments, Spanish Apartments, the Royal Poinciana Apartments, an apartment building at 48 Davis Blvd., the Boulevard Apartments and the Flora Dora Apartments. Combined, they sustained a 60 percent occupancy rate, which is somewhat skewed by Boulevard Apartments lying vacant. By mid-1928, 23 apartments were added when the Augustine and Columbia apartments opened on Columbia Drive. There were eight apartment buildings with a combined 92 units. Of those, 37 remained unoccupied, maintaining the 60 percent occupancy rate from the previous year.

The occupancy rate dropped in 1929, to 53 percent, but again the figure is misleading. Fifty apartments were added: two entirely new buildings plus the transition of the Palace of Florence from exclusively offering hotel rooms to also providing rooms for rent. The number of leased apartment units increased by 20. The rental market enjoyed a surge by 1930, when the number of available apartments and the number of rented apartments increased. The red brick Kornell Apartments opened at 25 Davis Blvd. (the first departure from Mediterranean architecture in a Davis Islands commercial building), and offered three apartments, which were all leased, and the Venetian Apartments added two units to the 15 already available.

Growth in the apartment market slumped until after World War II, when a second land boom hit Tampa and Florida. The majority of the rental units on Davis Islands date to this second building boom. Hotels, on the other hand, never made a comeback, with the conversion of the existing hotel buildings to other uses coming after the war as well.

During the immediate post-war period, a flood of new apartment buildings swept over Davis Islands. Large and small — from big apartment buildings to small duplexes and four-plexes — the increase in rental apartments could barely meet the demand.

The presence of multifamily residences provides neighborhood diversity and increased population density, and because of the original plan, they complement (for the most part) the homes that Davis knew would be the cornerstone of Davis Islands.

Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your comments and questions, and can be reached via email at or phone at (813) 228-0097.