There’s one question Gulfport Casino Manager Justin Shea asks more than any other: Where are the slots?
The word casino means Assembly area, he says politely to the guests of the imposing 88-year-old lime-green dance hall on the edge of Boca Ciega Bay. It is derived from the Italian for little house. “We’ve never had a game here in the historic ballroom, but we’re a proper casino. A quirky casino.
These famous casinos in places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, he says, in addition to their gambling facilities, have ballrooms, banquet halls, meeting rooms… at their core, they are places of gathering. They are small houses. Over time, the word casino has come to imply nothing more than card games and slot machines.
Added to the list of National Historic Sites in 2014, the Gulfport Casino is almost as old as the city itself. The first iteration was built in 1906, when the salty, sparsely populated area of southern Pinellas County was known as Veteran City (in an unsuccessful attempt to make it a retirement community for veterans of the Civil War).
The St. Petersburg & Gulf Railway electric streetcar line had been extended west of downtown, reaching its terminus at Veteran City. Those wishing to visit remote Pass-a-Grille Beach or fish in the blue waters of the Gulf would take St. Pete’s wagon and disembark there, climbing aboard tour boats that steamed across the bay several times a day. day.
“People forget that there were no bridges back then,” says Cathy Loper, historian, author and owner of the Gulfport Gabber newspaper. “There was no Pinellas Bayway, no Corey Causeway. So that was the only way out.
The Veterans City Administrators civic improvement plan included a two-story, wood-frame building, built atop a pier extending 800 feet into the bay, complete with a soda fountain, office of post, a meeting space and a dance floor. The second level was open air, offering beautiful water views and a welcome break from the usually sweltering heat.
It quickly became a central destination for residents, who held meetings, potlucks, parties and even religious services there. The railway has conveniently added tracks directly on the pier, allowing those heading for the beach to pass directly from the carriage onto the waiting steamers.
The city of Gulfport was incorporated – the ceremony was held inside the casino – on April 10, 1910. The first city hall was erected in 1913; the railroad proper arrived the following year, opening a vein for the rapid delivery of building materials just as Florida’s land boom was beginning.
The October 1921 hurricane reduced the beloved casino to a pile of broken planks, and a replacement was hastily erected, on thin pilings above the water.
According to legend, conductor Camille Thompson once wondered aloud if the shaking floor could crumble under the weight of so many square feet.
President Franklin Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, through the Civil Works Authority, funded a brand new casino building at a cost of $16,000, as well as a new fishing pier. The bottom of the bay was dredged to create the casino site on land, with a protective seawall erected on the waterfront side. Docks were installed to handle traffic from the Pass-a-Grille ferry.
Designed by architect Frank Showerman, the 10,000 square foot wood and brick casino opened in December 1934. It was state of the art for its time, with a solid maple dance floor. At the main entrance was a “grand staircase” on Shore Boulevard. Gulf breezes blew in from the large open windows.
At the official dedication ceremony in 1935, 1,200 visitors reportedly showed up to hear speeches about Gulfport’s glorious future and a performance by the Florida Military Academy Band. The military school had recently taken over the bankrupt Rolyat luxury hotel in Gulfport (the school would sell itself to Stetson Law College in 1953).
Artist George Snow Hill, who in the 1940s created the controversial “racist” mural briefly exhibited in St. Petersburg’s City Hall, painted a historic scene from “Gasparilla and his pirate crew” as ” hanging curtain” in front of the band’s performance. Region.
Like St. Petersburg, Gulfport thrived during the winter months, when northerners ventured to Florida to escape the cold. There was a local “society” or club for almost every state, and many of them met, celebrated, and mingled at the Gulfport Casino.
Always, there were dances, social hours and bingo.
And other activities.
An affluent St. Petersburg matron was shot and killed at 11pm last night near the Gulfport Casino… held at police headquarters for questioning was Lawrence Minutoli of Tampa, a former Chicagoan… Showing little emotion but waving his hands in typical Italian gestures, Minutoli said, “I often go to the dances at the Gulfport Casino and tonight I was surprised to see her there… I asked her to pay me the bill she owed me. She told me there was nothing to say, so I shot her. She caused me problems for 10 years. Now she won’t cause any more trouble.
St. Petersburg Times/May 13, 1949
The casino has been renovated and improved many times over the years. In 1950, the exterior facade was redesigned and a “bandshell” type stage was added; the solid maple dance floor was expanded to 100 feet by 56 feet. Then came the acoustic tiles and, in 1958, the city installed air conditioning. Recessed lights and chandeliers were added in the 1960s.
The “grand staircase” was closed off and the main entrance moved to the west side of the building in 2003. Extensive shoring behind the seawall and concrete support piles took place, and concrete walkways, with guardrails body, have been added.
Director Shea oversees a team of three full-time employees and a part-time events team of 10. The Historic Gulfport Casino Ballroom, as it is now properly called, is wholly owned and operated by the City of Gulfport’s Department of Cultural Facilities, and costs approximately $400,000 per year to operate.
With very few exceptions – let’s not talk about 2020, the big year of the Covid shutdown – the casino has long operated in the dark. He pays himself. There are weekly and monthly dances, including ballroom, latin, argentine tango, swing, contra, disco, and rock ‘n’ roll.
Add to that the monies generated by rentals – individuals or groups booking the venue for their own events – and the contribution from the casino’s full bar, and, according to Shea, things are looking good.
“The city,” he adds, “was incorporated into the first casino, in 1910. And the casino continues to be an economic engine, building the economy by bringing people downtown.”
The Gulfport Casino dominates the waterfront; it’s still Gulfport’s most recognizable—and iconic—building.
“It speaks to a time in our history where we were kind of on the phone,” Loper observes. “Where people were just starting to come to Florida…we didn’t really have a tourism culture yet. It was almost like you were in that frontier, because in the 30’s Florida wasn’t what it looks like today.
“And then you’re gonna go to this nice building with hardwood floors, and you can have a snack, maybe a drink, and they’ll have dances or sporting events there, boxing matches, n’ anything like that.
“And you can pretend to be civilized, in the middle of this state that’s actively trying to kill you with mosquitoes and hurricanes.”