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St. Pete's Birchwood Inn blends old, new, stellar view

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Published:   |   Updated: April 1, 2013 at 03:18 PM
ST. PETERSBURG -

The view from what will be the fifth-floor lounge at the soon-to-open Birchwood Inn is staggering.

Situated on Northeast Beach Drive, it offers spectacular views of The Pier, Tampa Bay, the green mini-forest of Cuban laurel trees across the street in Vinoy Park and the pink towers of the nearby Renaissance Vinoy Resort.

Unless you live in one of the nearby condo towers, there will be no better view of the waterfront than from The Canopy outdoor lounge. It's a perfect perch from which to watch Fourth of July fireworks with a cocktail.

“I never get tired of the view,” says owner Chuck Prather. “I can't wait for people to see what we see.”

Prather and his wife, Kathy Reilly Prather, purchased the former Grayl's Hotel for $1.85 million in cash in 2011. Since then, they have spent millions (he wouldn't say specifically how much) gutting the 89-year-old building to its shell, rebuilding it to historically accurate dimensions and then adding two floors.

With the 18-room boutique hotel scheduled to open the first week of May after months of delays, Prather gave a tour last week of the construction site.

Amid painters, electricians, tile installers and drywall finishers, Prather documented the transformation along with Jason Cline, the hotel's executive chef, and Todd McNulty, the wine and spirits director.

Food operations are becoming integral to the design of local boutique hotels. The boutique Le Meridien hotel, which plans to open in the now-empty former federal courthouse in downtown Tampa, has been pursuing local chefs for an upscale restaurant. In South Tampa, food is the core theme for the Epicurean hotel being built on South Howard Avenue by Bern's Steak House and Mainsail Lodging and Development of Tampa.

Cline will oversee Birchwood's multiple food operations, including the 250-seat Birch & Vine restaurant, sidewalk dining, The Canopy rooftop lounge, room service and a catering kitchen that supplies the 8,000-square-foot ballroom on the fourth floor.

Birch & Vine's “globally inspired farm-to-table” menu will be more formal, sit-down dining, with such appetizers as jumbo lump crab and four-cheese fondue and entrees like citrus miso-glazed sea scallops with truffle grits. Upstairs at The Canopy, oysters, charcuterie and espresso mole glazed pork belly are on the more casual tapas-style menu.

McNulty built a 1,200 bottle wine collection as well as a craft cocktail menu showcasing The Birchwood Floradita made with Bacardi anejo rum, Maraschino liqueur, fresh basil, sweet coconut milk and fresh lime juice.

“We're trying to raise the bar a little bit without scaring people,” says Cline, who most recently was executive chef at the now-defunct Bin 27 Bistro in Tampa.

The former Grayl's Hotel's Gatsby's Restaurant offered salads, sandwiches, pizza, appetizers and cheesecake. Instead of small ovens and hot plates, Cline will work with modern sous vide equipment and fully equipped kitchens.

“St. Pete is evolving,” he says. “What we're doing is going to take us to the next level. Hopefully, there will be many others that will follow.”

The project, which melds old and new, is a metaphor for the evolution of Beach Drive into a more stylish destination.

The Spanish Mission-style structure was built at 340 Beach Drive N.E. in 1924, two years before the Vinoy, and opened as the Lantern Lane apartment/hotel for seasonal guests. It was purchased in the 1960s by the Grayl family.

The property in recent years went into bankruptcy, which prompted Prather's purchase. Because the Grayl had been given a historic designation by the city, he was eligible for a tax break for 10 years.

Working with architects, Prather re-imagined the building with a fašade that was true to its origin while building a more modern addition with stylish waterfalls, ivy walls and room door knobs illuminated with LED lighting.

Working with the city's historic preservation association, details of the original building were preserved or replicated. The four-pane windows, for example, were replaced with an identical match, only this time they'll meet hurricane code. It cost an additional $100,000 in concrete to anchor them to the existing stucco fašade.

In each of the hotel's 18 bathrooms, large, porcelain, claw-foot tubs mimic those from the original building. Larger and more energy-efficient air-conditioning and plumbing systems had to be crammed into the same space as their predecessors.

“It has this charm of the old and the new,” Prather says.

An old photo from the 1920s found before the renovation will be displayed near the lobby bar. Cedar awnings that once perched above exterior windows were replaced.

Another unexpected discovery came only two days before exterior scaffolding was due to be dismantled. On the fašade along Beach Drive, Prather noticed what looked to be worm holes in the exterior. Scraping the surface with a key, he uncovered decorative mosaic tiles similar to those found in Ybor City.

“The guy who owned the scaffolding said he was coming to get it, ready or not, so we all got out there and started scraping,” Prather said. “It doesn't look perfect, but from the street it looks great. We had a blast. It was a jewel we didn't expect to find.”

The southern exterior of the concrete addition is adorned with a 12-by-24-foot mural of a birch forest. Prather chose the Birchwood name to honor his father, who once developed a neighborhood in Hillsborough County by the same name.

Even the design of the wrought iron-enhanced sign is an attempt to satisfy history buffs. On it, the name reads “The Birchwood at Lantern Lane,” a nod to its original identity

“As beautiful as they are, we didn't need another new building or tower downtown,” he said. “Hopefully, if we did it right, we have the best of both worlds.”


jhouck@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7324

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