Being a detective of Gulfport history has taken him as far back as he can go – and now he needs your help.
Thomas O’Connor is the research sleuth, design and marketing guru for the Historic Peninsula Inn on Beach Boulevard. He is also the brother of the owner, Veronica Champion.
“My goal is to find as much as I can,” said O’Connor. “Right now, I don’t have any photos from the 1930s through the 1970s. I want to add to our history collection.”
Over the years, the inn has been a hospital twice after both world wars, said Champion.
“Hotels were commonly utilized for the excessive number of wounded that hospitals could not accommodate,” said Champion. “Some people have also said it could have also been a rehabilitation or mental hospital for a period of time.”
The build date and years when name changes took place are not exactly known.
In his efforts to add to the inn’s historical collection, O’Connor got lucky one time while searching online in places like eBay and Craig’s List.
While sifting through numerous search results for Gulfport and St. Petersburg history, he found one postcard labeled, “Sunny Bay Manor.”
“It must have been when it was a retirement home,” said Champion.
Another postcard shows the facility was once named “Hotel Bayview,” which was the inn’s original name, she said.
One of the postcards is dated February 18, 1915.
“In 1913, that’s when photographs started to be taken but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t built before then,” said Champion.
Her hunch is it was built around 1905 though some written sources say 1911, she said.
O’Connor is especially looking for photos that were taken by residents or family when the facility was a hospital or nursing home.
“You figure when it was a retirement home that people would have taken pictures of their relatives,” he said. “Even though the historical society has information, people who took family pictures show a totally different side” of history.
In one Gulfport history book, an undated image taken from the inn’s veranda shows a scene on Beach Boulevard when the trolley line was being installed and there were “a lot of cedar trees in the area,” said Champion. One original cedar tree still stands in front of the inn.
In addition to copies and originals of exterior images, O’Conner has a loaner copy of a book entitled, “Our Story of Gulfport, Florida” by the Gulfport Historical Society. He is looking for a copy that can be added to the inn’s permanent collection.
The inn is also included in lists of Florida hotels that are haunted, said Champion.
The most famous spirit that some regular visitors claim they have seen is named Isabelle, the namesake of the restaurant.
“We have not had any sightings since I’ve been here so my belief is she is really happy with the way things are right now,” said Champion, who bought the inn in 2016. “We talk to her a lot. We invite people in and she has friendly faces” to keep her company. “We don’t ignore Isabelle.”
Since the recent installation of a quiet air conditioning system, a pair of guests staying in a second-floor suite provided Champion with a convincing ghost story. The couple was unaware of the building’s haunted history yet said they heard children running on the third floor during the night. Champion confirmed that no children were staying in that area at the time.
“We tell people there are very likely multiple presences here because we were a hospital and retirement home,” said Champion, “so people didn’t always leave here alive just because of the nature of what we were.”
In the one-and-a-half years O’Connor has been working at the inn, he says people frequently ask him about the history of the building.
From what he knows, he tries to provide a general overview but says he wants to be able to give more.
“I’m trying to put all of this together,” he said.
If you have any historical items that feature the inn and would like to help with the project, contact O’Connor at 727-346-9800.