Turning back time
Stuart preservationist gives new life to historical downtown buildings
BY DONNA CRARY
When Steven Vitale first laid eyes on downtown Stuart in the 1990s, it was love at first sight. His father, Otto, who lived in the area couldn’t wait to show the town to him while he was visiting from Miami.
“I remember driving in the car and he said, ‘You’re not going to believe this downtown Stuart — it’s so charming,’” he recalls. “He loved this downtown so much and he was so proud to show it off.”
It wasn’t long after that that Vitale and his wife, Ashley, relocated to Stuart. They had tired of big city living and were looking for a hometown with a slower pace to start their lives together.
“We didn’t have children at the time and we envisioned ourselves growing a family, so we thought, ‘Hey, let’s go up to this beautiful Treasure Coast area where we can work and raise a family,’” he says.
It was only a matter of time before Vitale became a leader of historical preservation in downtown Stuart. His fondness for the area led him to acquire and renovate some of the city’s most iconic buildings.
With a love for history, good business sense and a lot of determination, Vitale transformed his properties into a collection of historical vacation rentals that include the Old Colorado Inn, Ernie Lyons’ home and the Clifton Guest and Fishing Lodge. His properties from yesteryear are highly sought by tourists who want to experience the charm of Old Florida.
Vitale’s passion for preserving the past has not gone unnoticed. In 2019, he received the Historic Preservation Award from the Martin County Historic Preservation Board that celebrated his outstanding work and contribution to the area.
Shortly after Vitale moved to Stuart, the Post Office Arcade in downtown went up for sale. Vitale’s father, a seasoned real estate broker from Staten Island, had a good eye for historical gems. Not wanting an opportunity to get away, the father and son teamed up to purchase and renovate the arcade.
Vitale points out that downtown Stuart had not fully come into its own at that time. There was considerable turnover with the retail shops. The renovation plan for the arcade was to keep the front space as stores and open and increase the size of the back area to accommodate an upscale restaurant.
The Vitales created a vintage courtyard in the arcade by bringing in select terracotta tile, a historical fountain from Palm Beach, handcrafted windows and other upscale accents.
“We had a lot of fun doing that,” Vitale says, remembering those days. “Our goal was to build on what the former owners, Joan Jefferson and Annie MacMillan, had done by enhancing some of the architectural elements, opening up the courtyard and making it into more of a vintage courtyard.”
They later sold the Post Office Arcade, but the process had been so enjoyable that it whet Vitale’s appetite. He purchased more properties in the heart of downtown along Colorado Avenue and Seminole Street.
By 2008, the Great Recession had tanked the economy and had significantly impacted Vitale’s livelihood.
“That’s how I supported myself in a successful real estate law practice and I was starting to grow this large family,” he recalls.
During this period, Vitale began to brainstorm and discovered that history provided new opportunities in the midst of tough times. The apartment complex he owned on Colorado Avenue was once a hotel built in 1914 — the same year that Stuart was incorporated. Vitale’s idea was to turn the apartment building into a vintage boutique hotel and call it the Old Colorado Inn.
“That took it from a place that was doing OK before the downturn to something that could work and actually be profitable,” he recalls. “It was a good decision from many angles.”
Around 2010, Vitale says he summoned the courage to fulfill his dream and make the vintage hotel a reality. His plan was to start small and renovate only a handful of rooms at a time.
“I said to myself, ‘If this works, then I’ll start with all of the other units next door and the cottage behind that,’ and lo and behold, it worked,” he says.
OLD MIXED WITH NEW
Eventually, Vitale created an inn that has an Old World ambience mixed with the convenience of modern upgrades. He credits Mike Braid, the former owner, for his initial renovations. Like the Post Office Arcade, he wanted to build on what others had previously done by enhancing with upscale finishes.
“For example, in all of the kitchens I wanted to have the right tile, the right cabinetry, the right appliances, the right stone work,” he explains.
“And in the bathrooms, everything had to have the right type of showers, glass and stone work. So I started doing that type of renovation, putting in the finishing touches and making it first class.”
During this time, more people were using computers to plan their vacations. One of Vitale’s clients, who owned a bed and breakfast, advised him to market his hotel on Tripadvisor.
“He taught me something about hospitality,” he says. “It has to be an experience for the guests and really everything has to be perfect to build up your reviews. We started getting good reviews and we became the No. 1 lodging on Tripadvisor in the whole area.”
Vitale’s business successfully grew from the travel website’s ratings, which allowed him to turn other vintage properties that he owned into vacation rentals. Over time, he purchased and renovated additional historical homes and today he markets them through the umbrella of the Old Colorado Inn.
ATTENTION TO DETAILS
Guests who stay at the Old Colorado Inn and vacation homes experience a timeless retreat. Each property is painted outside with bright or pastel colors reflecting the subtropical ambience of South Florida. Careful attention has been given to preserve the historical character of each building. Many of the rooms are furnished with Dade County pine floors, beadboard ceilings and beautiful antiques. Spacious porches invite guests to sit back and savor the pleasant vistas of downtown.
The historical vacation homes along Seminole Street are conveniently in the heart of downtown, yet tucked away, hidden behind lush gardens. Four of the Edenesque properties share a pool and a whirlpool bath for guests to relax and enjoy.
Vitale especially enjoys giving tours to his guests and educating them about local history.
“I can’t tell you how appreciative the guests are,” he remarks. “In South Florida, everything is built up and most of it looks the same, very cookie cutter. But we have a sense of history and charm here in downtown Stuart that people love. And when they come to stay at the hotel, they are so appreciative of staying in accommodations that have that history and uniqueness.”
Each historical site that Vitale owns has its own special personality and story to tell.
The Old Colorado Inn is almost a mini-museum. Vintage pictures of Martin County are displayed throughout the hotel. They were provided by local historian Sandra Thurlow.
The two-story brick building was originally the Coventry Hotel, built more than a century ago by John Coventry. His son, Frank, made a name for himself when he drove the getaway car for the Ashley Gang after they robbed a Stuart bank. While he was driving, John Ashley was shot and lost his eye, and that’s how the legendary outlaw acquired his trademark patch. Frank Coventry was also said to be a rum runner during Prohibition and was later shot and killed in a pool hall.
Around the corner on Seminole Street is the home of Ernie Lyons, the longtime editor of The Stuart News. Author of My Florida and The Last Cracker Barrel, Lyons wrote about his love of fishing and protecting local waterways while educating readers on the importance of environmental preservation. The home, built in 1890, is the oldest in Stuart. The building was used as a community center during those early days and witnessed many firsts — the first schoolhouse, church service and wedding. The home is registered as a literary landmark.
Next door is the Clifton Guest and Fishing Lodge. In 2018, Vitale bought and rescued the building that was slated for demolition. Jumping through many hoops, he arranged to barge the 2,500-square-foot home down the St. Lucie River in one piece to its current location.
“It’s worth it to preserve some of these gems that would have been knocked down and our history erased,” Vitale says. “In my mind, it’s worth every dime.”
The Clifton Lodge has special ties to boating magnate Ralph Evinrude who frequented it during the mid-1950s while courting celebrity Frances Langford.
The couple later married and Evinrude moved the Outboard Marine Corp.’s testing center to Stuart, and they became two of the area’s most significant philanthropists.
Guests can also make a connection with Stuart’s pioneer past while staying at the Blue House, which was a Sears, Roebuck Co. kit house. Built in 1915, the home was owned by Lyndon “Doc” Barnes who ran the drug store and soda fountain in the Post Office Arcade.
Additionally, the Owl House is named for its four-pointed gable roof that some claim resembles the head of an owl. Built in 1904, the spacious two-story home was designed by a sea captain who wanted to protect the roof from hurricane winds. It offers stunning wide views of the St. Lucie River and has been recently renovated and outfitted with new furnishings to have the comfy feel of a lakeside retreat.
As visitors stroll in the heart of downtown, they can see that Vitale is passionate about historical preservation. He notes he has put his blood, sweat and tears into renovating these century-old buildings. He knows they are worth preserving because their ageless beauty teaches important lessons.
“Historic preservation gives members of a community a shared sense of pride in their history and their heritage,” he explains. “Without the visual reality of historic preservation, we couldn’t experience that sense of historic integrity except by reading books. With historic preservation, we can actually see it with our own eyes.”
Looking back, Vitale never imagined he would renovate and create a vintage boutique hotel and homes that are popular with tourists and appreciated by locals. Perhaps, there was a silver lining to the recession because in the end, it turned into a blessing.
“What happens in life is you take a chance at doing something,” he says. “Like when my beautiful wife and I started having children and felt blessed by them, and we wanted to continue to have more children.
“It’s the same thing with these homes. It seemed to work out and that we enjoyed the process. It was fun being involved in the renovations, and it became successful economically. As other historical properties became available, we said, ‘Why not? Let’s try another one.’”