The iconic Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, Florida and its classic Donald Ross designed golf course have finally been completely restored to their former glory.
Built in 1924 as the centerpiece of the master planned city of Coral Gables, by young developer George Merrick, the 400 room Biltmore Hotel and its classic Moorish Giralda Tower became the place to be in South Florida during the Roaring Twenties.
In keeping with Merrick’s intentions to create nothing but the finest country club, Ross, the Scottish immigrant from Dornoch who had risen to be the preeminent golf course architect of that period, was hired to lay out 36 holes in the shadow of the hotel.
Over those halcyon days the Biltmore became a fashionable mecca for royalty, Hollywood stars, politicians, gangsters and sports legends like Bobby Jones and Babe Ruth. The Miami Biltmore Open became a popular stop for professional golfers in the 1930’s with winners like Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen, Horton Smith and Paul Runyan.
The high times at the Biltmore ended abruptly in 1942 when the United States entered World War II. The War Department showed up one day and commandeered the entire property to use as a hospital, bricking up windows and putting linoleum over the marble floors. After the war the Veterans Administration used to property until 1968 when they abandoned it.
After much lobbying by the city of Coral Gables, the federal government transferred title to the city under the Historic Monuments Act in 1973. The hotel sat empty for another ten years for lack of a plan continuing to fall into disrepair to the point it was used as a set for horror movies.
Finally in 1983 the city spent $55 million over four years to restore the property only to close again in 1990 during a huge economic recession.
The present ownership took control of the hotel in 1993 under the leadership of Gene Prescott, manager of the Seaway Hotels Corporation, by signing a 99 year lease with the City of Coral Gables. They then embarked on a $55 million restoration of the entire property including a $3 million facelift on the golf course in 2007. Golf course architect Brian Silva, who has done considerable work on Ross layouts such as Augusta Country Club, Palm Beach Country Club and Ohio‘s Brookside Country Club, directed the efforts where the greens were cored out and rebuilt along with fairway bunkers.
In early 2016, Bob Coman, the then recently appointed Director of Golf, had an idea. “I presented the restoration idea to Gene Prescott and he was amenable since he enjoyed working with Brian on the 2007 renovation,” he said. “The restoration concept made the most sense. The Biltmore is the only National Historic Hotel in Florida and is the center piece of the city of Coral Gables. The city commission gave unanimous support to the idea since it maintained and enhanced historic preservation of the entire property.”
In April 2016, Coman drove up to Virginia to visit his son in college and stopped by the Tufts Archives in Pinehurst, NC the repository of many of Donald Ross artifacts where he was provided with not only the Biltmore drawings but Ross‘s field notes which provided the basis for the current restoration.
When CFO Jim Pelletier signed off on Silva’s plan and construction bids in March 2018 the project was on a fast track all summer heading for a December reopening.
Ross’s original plans showed vastly different bunkering than what was there in 2018. “It had big and strong bunkering originally,” Silva noted. “The idea was, within reason, to reflect its history, but more contemporary…putting some back and some repositioned….restore original intent, not just original location.”
With the removal of over 100 trees and the repositioning of fairway and greenside bunkers and stretching of the back tees to 7,112 yards, “The fairway movement was rediscovered. It really accentuates the aesthetics and strategies that Ross intended,” said Silva.
Also added with the restoration is the world renowned Jim McLean Golf School with specially designed practice areas and the Biltmore is now the home course of the University of Miami‘s women’s golf team.
The Biltmore Hotel and its old world charm has been brought back to its former glory with modern amenities and its Golden Age Donald Ross golf course is now in the same class.