An Icon Returns
An Icon ReturnsSeagrove Villas Motel is Back to Its Original Glory
By Joyce Owen
For more than 50 years, visitors to Seagrove Villas Motel in South Walton enjoyed amazing Gulf views, a 1950s-style pool and even a couple of hammocks on a grassy area between the pool and the dunes. The motel stood as a testament to the way life once was along Florida’s Gulf Coast beaches, a friendly beacon to the tourists who flocked back year after year to enjoy its comfortable familiarity.
Originally owned and operated by Paul and Margaret Benedict, the couple named the motel Seagrove Manor. They discovered the area in 1949 when Paul Benedict was in training at Tyndall Air Force Base. The Benedicts bought land for a home, and when Paul was assigned to Tyndall in 1952, they purchased 300 feet of Seagrove Gulf front for $15,000. The couple built two duplexes the first year, and two more were built in the second year. They added a coffee shop to give people a place to eat.
They sold the motel and coffee shop in 1967, just as the area was being discovered, and the two- and three-story buildings were added in the 1990s. However, the quaint cottages still are the most sought after by guests. The units have kitchenettes, outdoor barbecue grills and picnic tables.
The iconic motel, with its Old Florida-style beachfront cottages and blue neon sign welcoming guests, had been destined for demolition to make way for a beach club.
During the height of the real estate frenzy, developer Rick Olson planned Nature Walk at Seagrove, a 155-acre residential development about two miles north of Highway 30-A on County Road 395. Olson purchased the motel property and planned to build a beachfront club to offer what many considered an essential amenity — beach access — for the residents and guests of Nature Walk.
The downturn in the economy slowed and then halted the development of Nature Walk; a lawsuit questioning the compatibility of the beach club, filed by residents in 2007, delayed the destruction of the old motel even further. And though the motel remained open, guests noticed the property wasn’t being as well maintained.
Cindy and Chris Dunlap, of Lawrenceville, Ga., saw the neglect, but they continued to stay at the motel where they had spent their honeymoon 20 years ago. They have made it their vacation spot ever since.
“I love it there,” Cindy Dunlap says. “It was the most comfortable, family-oriented place to stay. When we say we are going on vacation, our boys know we are going to Seagrove.”
During the Dunlaps’ most recent visit in June 2008, the motel was nearly empty. They were the only guests.
“Every time we’d go back, it was a little iffy as to whether they would continue to stay open,” Cindy Dunlap says.
To stay connected, she bookmarked the motel’s Web site (seagrovevillas.com) and frequently visited the site, where she checked the temperature at the beach and looked at the photos of the motel.
“It made me feel good,” she says. “Eventually the Web site was no longer updated, but I didn’t delete it from my favorites.”
Dunlap recently went back to the Web site and discovered that not only was it up and running, there was an announcement that the motel would reopen in spring 2009.
Beach Group Properties broker Ron Romano, the court-appointed receiver while foreclosure of the property is pending, says the motel, which closed in late 2008, is for sale with an asking price of $12.5 million.
The rental management company, 360 Blue LLC, is handling renovations as well as reservations for the motel. The company manages about 75 short-term rental properties, 360 Blue owner Jason Sprenkle says.
Cindy Dunlap sent an e-mail to Sprenkle, wishing him well with the new venture.
“Sadly, over the last three or so years it has fallen into disrepair,” she wrote. “Even then, Seagrove Villas was like an old friend to us. You love them dearly and look past any faults or blemishes.”
Her husband was equally enthusiastic in his e-mail to Sprenkle.
“Seagrove Villas has been our summer retreat for about 20 years,” Chris Dunlap wrote to Sprenkle upon learning the motel was not going to be bulldozed. He added, “Awesome news for the Dunlap family.”
The couple will miss visiting the motel for the first time this year, Cindy Dunlap says.
“Unfortunately, my husband works in the automotive industry, so vacations will probably be put on hold, but I’m just glad to know that Seagrove is there waiting for us when we come,” she says.
Investors are providing $200,000 for renovations to the motel. For Sprenkle and his team, that means deep cleaning, painting and making repairs to bring equipment into good working order.
Some furniture has been replaced, but much of the Old Florida feel has been retained. Sprenkle says the units that have not been completely updated are the most sought after by former guests, who loved the old furnishings and the purple countertops in the kitchenettes. He says prospective buyers visiting the property like the idea of retaining the retro look.
“They see the revenue potential,” he says.
Sprenkle anticipates that the motel will be in operation for several years.
“We are trying to run the motel like our other properties,” he says. “We approach it like a nice condo on the beach.”
However, it is a unique property on 30-A — a motel located right above the dunes. The rental prices are reasonable for price-conscious travelers — about $200 a night as compared to $500 a night for other properties. Unlike most other rentals in the area, guests can stay one night, which has been perfect for walk-in traffic — about 60 percent of the motel’s business.
When people ask, “What about the blue neon sign?” Sprenkle says he tells them that “we are renovating the motel to what it was.”
Chuckling, Sprenkle admits he anticipated some trouble with the neon sign conflicting with the scenic guidelines on 30-A, but the only complaints came when the sign was removed. He stresses that the sign has already been repaired and replaced.
“It is exactly the same,” he says. “I told the company (that worked on the sign) I want the same size and color lettering as the original.”
The welcoming glow of the neon sign was not the only reason guests returned year after year. Many were looking for that Old Florida feel and the customer service they enjoyed when staying at Seagrove Villas.
John Barnes, of Tuscaloosa, Ala., grew up going to Destin in the 1960s and 1970s.
“We stayed in Silver Beach and it was fantastic,” he says.
But when Destin got too big, he went looking for another place to vacation.
“I drove over toward Grayton Beach, a favorite spot during our trips from Tuscaloosa,” Barnes says. “It was still Old Florida. A short drive down 30-A, and I discovered Seagrove Villas Motel. It had that ’50s look and feel.
“We even extended our stay an extra day that year, checking out of the motel in Destin and spending a night in Cottage 1,” he remembers. “It was Gulf front with a Jacuzzi and wonderful views.”
That unit, dubbed the Honeymoon Cottage, became the focal point for many family trips, Barnes says. In January of each year, he called the motel asking when the cottage was available; he booked it and then set up his vacation schedule.
“It was still all in its glory on our last visit in 2006,” Barnes says. He was devastated when he learned the motel was closing, but now that it has reopened, Barnes is planning a late-summer visit to renew his acquaintance with the charms of the old motel.
Kathy Wells, of Lacy’s Spring, Ala., praised the attention her group always received at Seagrove Villas Motel.
The group of eight families had vacationed together for years at Silver Beach in Destin when they learned in 1999 that it was closing.
“Our group was devastated, because we loved the look and feel of the Old Florida hotels,” she says. “We had to find a new place to stay for our year 2000 vacation. Two of the ladies in our group decided to take a drive east and see what they could find. They happened upon the villas and said, ‘This is it! This is exactly what we were looking for.’ They came back and told us about it, and we all went and took a look. We all fell in love and made reservations for the summer of 2000.”
The next year, the group filled the first floor of one of the buildings facing the Gulf.
“The hotel staff was so gracious and sweet to us,” Wells remembers. On Sunday morning when the staff started setting up complimentary beach chairs and umbrellas, someone from the group would go down and request the setup in a horseshoe shape so everyone could see and talk to each while they were on the beach.
“The staff did this every day for us while were there, and they did it every year we stayed there,” she says.
Having the first floor to themselves also allowed the families to sit out on their porches to visit and even share meals together.
“Our favorite thing to do was for each family to cook something so we could have our ‘community meals,’” Wells says. “We moved all of our tables out to the grassy area and had our meals under the stars.”
There was another “under the stars” experience that held fond memories for Wells — the hammocks, which have been replaced as part of the renovation. She hopes to return and lie in those hammocks where she spent many hours — drinking her morning coffee and later watching the stars at night.
“I loved the hammocks,” Wells says. “They still call my name to this day!”