Historic Detroit Hotel elevator discovered during remodel in St. Petersburg
ST. PETERSBURG — For the people turning the former Caddy’s on Central space into a steampunk-themed brewpub, it was a serendipitous find.
Construction workers tearing down walls inside the historic Detroit Hotel building uncovered an intact elevator at least 115 years old. The cage-like door and huge electric motor are still there, as are the cables, though they’ve long ago been cut.
Cranks, gears, metal and grime, plus Victorian-era design flourishes? Yes, that will certainly work in our steampunk-esque restaurant, thought the management team from Segreti’s Hospitality Group. Let’s keep them.
They also uncovered an unused staircase, a forgotten fireplace and the hotel’s old telephone switchboard. The switchboard is wood, and you can still see the room numbers written by hand.
Now the plan is to restore and incorporate the rediscovered elements of the 1888 building into design centerpieces of the new business at 217 Central Avenue. The elevator could hold a table, and be reserved for private dining. More likely, it will become a photo booth.
“We’re going to try to restore it to its historical glory, and really bring out what this building has hidden for so long,” said Segreti’s spokeswoman Dana Speer.
Behind another wall workers discovered some extremely old wallpaper that appears hand-painted. Segreti’s CEO Frank Segreti says he’s not sure if it’s “the original wallpaper,” but maybe.
They framed it, and are now working to recreate more of it for use in the new restaurant. The staircase won’t lead anywhere, Segreti said, but it’s being restored to hearken back to when it was part of the hotel lobby.
“To think that the founders of St. Petersburg used this elevator,” said Joey Vars, a local historian whose @histoticlandmark Instagram account is dedicated to Florida history, and who first posted photos of the elevator. “We don’t really have much showing the historic legacy like this in downtown, at least not easily accessible or visible to the public. I can’t think of much, other than the Vinoy.”
The Detroit Hotel, likely the city’s first proper hotel and by some measures its “first significant building,” was built in 1888 by city founders Peter Demens and John C. Williams.
Williams gave Demens the land for the hotel in exchange for Demens bringing the railroad to town instead of having it go straight to Gulfport. The train station was built right across the street from the hotel on the spot that later became the Priatek Plaza skyscraper.
The Detroit Hotel was named after Williams’ hometown. The long-gone minaret that stood out front was a nod to Demens’ native Russia. So was the name he gave the city, St. Petersburg.
The hotel had 40 rooms when it was built, a number higher than the entire population of the town, said Nevin Sitler at the St. Petersburg Museum of History. It was a speculative gamble for a town that was barely a speck on the map.
“But they had a feeling the train would change the landscape of the city,” Sitler said. “And it did.”
Brick additions to the hotel were eventually added on both sides. John F. Kennedy once visited the hotel, Silter said.
Architectural history professor Lee Gray is described on the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s website as “an expert on vertical transportation and the only full-time elevator historian in the world.” He described the find as “a very interesting old elevator.”
After studying photos, Gray said it seems unlikely the electric elevator was installed right at the time the hotel was built. In 1888, electric elevators were extremely rare and were mostly hydraulic. The first elevators arrived in the U.S. in the 1860s, powered by steam.
“This looks like probably something Warner Elevator made around 1897 or 1898,” Gray said of the Detroit Hotel elevator. “Even in the 1890s a lot of towns still didn’t have electricity.”
That’s true. St. Petersburg did not have it until 1897.
The public will get to check out the elevator and other historic details, possibly before the end of the year. Segreti hopes to be open in December.
The space is being developed into a new concept Segreti is tentatively calling Brickyard. Another part of the space will become the second location for Segreti’s downtown Sarasota restaurant, Pizza N’ Brew.
Renderings by Sol Design Studio suggest dramatic lighting, dark wood and an elaborate bar.
Segreti said he’s decorating the place with historic memorabilia, and wants a life-size sculpture of Babe Ruth, who he believes may have visited the hotel, to put near the staircase.
Segreti also said that live music will return to the patio outside the restaurant.
Here are some more photos of the discovery:
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