By Alice L. and Greg E. Luckhardt
In February 1924, during the height of the Florida land boom years, Samuel W. Hind, a builder from Chicago, had a concept for an elegant hotel to be located on the beautiful St. Lucie River near downtown Stuart. The Italian and Spanish motif, three-story, 100-room hostelry would have a restaurant, rooms for public dances, patios and fountains surrounded by lush gardens, but Hind’s plans did not work out and he returned to Illinois.
Charlie B. Griner, president of Griner Hotels, Inc., also had plans for establishment of a hotel in the small town of Stuart, to be called the Dixie-Pelican. It would be a link in the chain of Dixie hotels operated in Florida, Georgia and other southern states by his firm, based in Jacksonville. It was to be a grand, three-story structure, designed by architect Gerald J. O’Reilly of Pfeiffer & O’Reilly of Miami, with 50 rooms, each with private bath.
Construction of the $175,000 opulent hotel began in 1925. Only the finest materials were used with walnut trim and matching furniture. The lobby and dining room opened onto the lavish piazza with French windows offering views of the St. Lucie River. The massive service kitchen was considered one of the best-equipped hotel kitchens in the state.
Local financial backers, the Pelican Holding Company, included Louis Henry Toussaint, president; Carroll Dunscombe, secretary; Maj. William I. Shuman; Boleslaw Frank Minschke; John E. Taylor; Edward A. Fuge; and a silent partner, Governor John W. Martin, for whom the newly formed county had been named in May 1925. The hotel would be leased to Griner Hotels, Inc. and it was hoped that construction was completed for the grand celebration of the new county for which detailed plans had been made.
On Jan. 28, 1926 the hotel received Governor John Martin and his staff, who would be the first to sign the guest registry. Rooms assigned to the governor were on the second floor, with a reception area, private bath, separate bedroom and a magnificent view of the St. Lucie River. As many as 2,000 people of all ages participated in the county’s celebratory event, with vehicles, hundreds of floats, bands, marching school students and other groups parading by the reviewing stand on Osceola Avenue at the Dixie-Pelican. A banquet, orchestra and dancing topped off the evening’s festivities at the new hotel, which was to become an immensely popular establishment in the years that followed, particularly with vacationing sport fishermen.
Griner Hotels, Inc., emphasized four important good business principles: hospitality, comfort, service and courtesy. In 1928, Drew W. King, from Tennessee, assumed the lease and management of the daily operation of the hotel, but harsh economic times were on the horizon. King convinced the Pelican Holding Co. that a dock and other additions were necessary. A long pier five feet above the water at low tide and three and a half feet above at high tide was constructed to encourage the yachtsmen to dock and stay at the hotel. Renovations and redecorating of the interior preceded the ‘second’ grand opening on Nov. 1, 1929, as the Pelican Hotel.
King partnered with Joseph J. Ranney, in June 1933, to purchase the hotel from the Pelican Holding Co. He stated when the deal was completed: “We have held our own through five bad hotel years, but guests have constantly returned and from present indications we look forward confidently to one of the best seasons in next year’s winter.” Unfortunately, only a month later, in July 1933, a devastating tropical storm with destructive driving rains caused considerable damage at the hotel. Many floors, walls and rugs needed repairs or replacement, but all was restored and ready by Jan. 9, 1934 for the dedication of the new Roosevelt Bridge.
The celebration featured a parade, boat regatta and other fun and exciting activities. Florida Governor Dave Sholtz was present and attended a large luncheon held at the Pelican.
The hotel was Stuart’s showplace for parties, wedding receptions, dances, as well as a popular residence for winter visitors. Expansion and improvements were made and by 1939, Drew King had sole ownership of the hotel, buying out partner, Ranney. Tragically, however, King died Dec. 23, 1944. William V. and Grover C. King, Drew’s sons, took over ownership and management of the Pelican Hotel.
The hurricane of 1949 brought more devastation to the county, but only minor damage to the Pelican, where rooms were quickly filled by workers arriving to help with repairs on homes and structures not so fortunate. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, William King encouraged sports fishermen as clientele and was host to the nation’s leading writers for fishing and boating enthusiasts.
In 1952, rates for a single room started at $14 a day and in June of that year a swimming pool, 20 by 40 feet, was constructed on the river side of the hotel, which was open to guests and available to the public for a fee. There were also dressing rooms, a snack bar and patio; the first pool built in town for public use. Poolside at the Pelican was the place to be for the glamorous and highly anticipated annual Labor Day spectacle, the Stuart-Jaycees sponsored beauty pageant, started in 1956, where contestants vied for titles of Miss Stuart, Miss Martin County and Miss Stuart Junior Chamber of Commerce.
William Vance King, owner of the Pelican, died in April 1968. His brother, Grover, having died nine years earlier, the King family decided to sell the hotel and property. On Feb. 27, 1969 the sale was made to Ernest J. Calcagni, Morion Pechter and John Balanti of New York for $85,000. In March 1969, less than a month later, Hollywood actors, Karen Black and Fabian, movie director Luke Moberly, crew and technicians stayed at the Pelican Hotel during the production of “Little Laura and Big John” a film based on the local, notorious John Ashley Gang.
By the 1970s the glory days of the once magnificent Pelican Hotel were over. A triple shooting, (murder-suicide) in October 1972, tarnished the hostelry’s reputation and business steadily declined into the 1980s when Willie E. Gary, a local attorney purchased the property. Three million dollars worth of major renovation was done inside and out. The former grand Pelican Hotel became the law offices of Gary, Williams, Lewis and Watson, as Water Side Place.
Alice L. Luckhardt is a freelance historical researcher and writer, member of the Board of Directors for the Stuart Heritage Museum and researcher for the Elliott and House of Refuge. Greg Luckhardt, a native of Stuart and 1967 MCHS grad, is a former science teacher, retired businessman & member of Stuart Heritage Museum.