History of Belleair
Historic Survey Project
In July of 2017, Town of Belleair was awarded a $50,000 grant from the State of Florida to study our Town's unique and vibrant history. To complete this, staff hired historic preservation consultant, Johnson, Mirmiran, and Thompson, Inc. (JMT), which has been working alongside the Town over the past several months. This project includes secondary research, individual studies on potentially-historic properties, interviews of local residents, and more.
Please join us on Tuesday, July 24 at 4:00 pm in Town Hall to see JMT's presentation of findings. All are welcome to attend free of charge, and refreshments will be served.
Also, check out our teaser video below that introduces five of our seven interviewees!
Belleair is a busy, growing community with a unique sense of civic pride. Part of Belleair’s uncommon personality lies in its brief but colorful history. In the next few paragraphs, you’ll discover the Belleair you live in has changed greatly in its short lifetime. As a community, Belleair started out at the end of the line - but what a line!
In the 1890’s, railroad magnate Henry B. Plant constructed his showpiece hotel on a high bluff south of Clearwater, complete with a railroad siding for the private cars of his wealthy winter patrons.
The Belleview Hotel
The Belleview Hotel had its grand opening in January of 1897. Its location was on a peninsula west of Tampa Bay which was to become Pinellas County in 1912. Guests at the Belleview enjoyed the amenities of regal, rustic living; yachting on Clearwater Bay, horseback riding in the piney woods south of the hotel; golfing, tennis, skeet shooting, and bicycling.
The national craze for bicycling found a home at the hotel and, at the turn of the century, Belleair was the scene of six-day bicycle races and many other national and international prominent cycling events.
The Belleview’s original nine-hole golf course with sand greens had grown to two, 18-hole courses with Florida’s first grass greens by World War I. In 1920, the hotel was purchased from the Plant Investment Company by John McEntee Bowman, international sportsman and owner of the Biltmore chain of hotels. Hence the beginning of the new name Belleview Biltmore Hotel.
Directly to the north of the hotel, a casino added zest to the life of the snowbirds and hotel guests, operating until the mid 1940s.
From Guests to Residents
The good life at the seasonal Belleview Biltmore naturally led to the desire among some guests to live in this pleasant place year-round. Some of Belleair’s first homes were constructed on North Indian Rocks Road, overlooking the Belleview’s golf course, and still stand today.
This neighborhood developed and gradually moved south, resisting annexation moves by the City of Clearwater. In 1925, the Town of Belleair was incorporated and the noted town planner, John Nolen, was hired to lay out the streets that constitute most of Belleair today.
The grandiose plans of the early residents crashed with the stock market in 1929 and the end of the Florida Land Boom. In the early 1930’s, the town defaulted on more than $1 million of improvement bonds and the beautiful streets behind the bluff on the bay were rapidly reclaimed by weeds and undergrowth.
Air Corps Training Post
During World War II, the Belleview Biltmore became an Army Air Corps training post and its beautiful greens were used as drill fields. World War II also claimed another lesser known Belleair landmark – Eagle’s Nest Gardens. This popular attraction, which featured lovely gardens and a Japanese motif, was closed due to strong wartime public opinion.
The shallow waters below the bluff were the proving ground for then Clearwater (later Belleair) resident Donald Roebling’s wartime invention - The Alligator – an amphibious, tracked landing vehicle that gained fame on the beaches of Europe and the Pacific Islands.
Following the war, most of the land south of the Belleview Biltmore, including the never-finished Pelican Golf Course, was purchased by two companies owned by the late E. W. Hallett. The massive cleanup to restore the town resulted in few land sales, leaving Belleair with its constant population of 300 pioneer souls.
In 1944, Mrs. Georgine Shillard-Smith, noted patron of the arts, donated seven acres of land to create the Florida Gulf Coast Art Center, an important regional resource in the creative arts. Due to the growth of both the town and the art center, the center relocated its facility in 1999 to the middle of Pinellas County – in the midst of the new botanical gardens.
The 1950’s saw the rebirth of the Town with new construction bringing the population to approximately 2,200 by 1955. Young, postwar professionals discovered the community and civic leaders established strong recreation programs, the sewage system, an expanded water system and the present Town Hall building.
The next large growth in the town took place in the late 1960's to early 1970's when U.S. Steel purchased the land in front of the Hotel and the Island to the west of the hotel. A large community of condominiums was constructed and resulted in boosting the town’s population to approximately 4,000.
Fortunately, far-sighted residents and officials had set aside land for the town’s beautiful system of parks and paths, while elected officials created a strong set of codes to enhance and preserve the quality way of life we enjoy today.