Abandoned Florida: The Dixie Walesbilt Hotel

Situated in the heart of Central Florida, the City of Lake Wales is a place known for a variety of things. From the Legend of Spook Hill and Bok Tower to the being the home of Florida's Natural massive citrus juice production plant, growing up in nearby Winter Haven, I've always found it to be quite intriguing. With that said, not many know that this Polk County community of 16,000 residents is also the site of one of the state's most impressive skyscrapers built during the 1920s Florida Land Boom. Courtesy of Abadoned Florida's Bullet, here's a look into the rise, fall and the pending restoration of the Dixie Walesbilt Hotel.

(Courtesy of the Florida State Archives)

The Dixie Walesbilt Hotel, known as the Grand Hotel in later years, is one of a small number of skyscrapers built in the 1920s that still stand today and is a prime example of how optimistic people were during the Florida land boom. Built in 1926, it found financing through a stock-sale campaign in the local business community, costing $500,000 after it was completed(which equates to about $6 million today.)

The building architecture, masonry vernacular with hints of Mediterranean revival, is also a good example of the time is 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, whose designed both the Wyoming County Courthouse and Jail and the Colonial Hotel in Virginia.

The hotel 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 a cap, all noticeably visible.

The hotel opened as the “Walesbilt” in January 1927, shortly after the land boom had started to collapse and two years before the Great Depression began. It’s also best to note that the hotel opened around the same time the Floridan Hotel in Tampa opened, another hotel built during the Florida land boom.

In 1972, the hotel was purchased by Anderson Sun State and renamed the “Groveland Motor Inn”. The firm completely renovated the hotel and used it to host visitors to the area who were interested in Green Swamp, land sectioned off for land development. At the time there was heavy speculation in the land because of it’s close proximity to Walt Disney World and were 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. The firm filed for foreclosure and the hotel was auctioned off in 1974. Despite RCI Electric purchasing the hotel, it remained empty for many years afterwards.

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.

Victor Khubani, a property investor from New York acquired the property and renamed the hotel “Grand”. The hotel closed briefly in December 1988, due to a variety of code violations and causing the owner to later pay $14,000 in fines. On August 31, 1990 it was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, possibly for tax exemption reasons. 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.