Q: Is Lemon Tree Inn going to reopen after the hurricane? Wasn’t it going to be demolished years ago? — K.P., Naples
A: Even without Hurricane Ian’s devastation, the days were numbered for the more than 70-year-old Lemon Tree Inn. The upcoming season would have been the inn’s last as the property is destined to be sold and replaced with a mixed-use redevelopment project.
The plan was to operate the Lemon Tree for one more season, permanently closing it April 15, a month ahead of its real estate closing scheduled for next spring. But Hurricane Ian threw cold water on those plans, prematurely closing the oldest operating hotel in Naples.
“It is the end of an era,” said Naples resident Sid Kalmans, who has owned the property at 250 Ninth St. S. since 2001.
At least two feet of saltwater surged into the locally owned and operated hotel. While the damage was not insurmountable — repairs were estimated to take at least eight to 10 months — it wasn’t logical to remediate the rooms ahead of the anticipated handover.
“We were two feet underwater, the whole property,” Kalmans said. “There’s not even a chance to be able to put anything together by season. It would take too much to put it back together in time for the season only to be torn down. I hate to go out that way.”
Heeding the mandatory evacuation for properties west of U.S. 41, the Lemon Tree Inn closed on Sept. 27, the day before the life-changing hurricane made landfall on the Gulf Coast. The hotel would not reopen.
“We took a beating. It was rough,” said Robert DeCastro, general manager of the boutique hotel since 2006.
When a public post was made on its website and social media that the hotel would be closed indefinitely after the storm, frequent guests reached out to inquire about the status of the inn’s employees and Lemon, a friendly tortoiseshell cat that made her rounds to greet guests. Lemon and all employees safely evacuated before the storm hit.
Nostalgic Lemon Tree fans shared photos of the cat and asked about her on the inn’s Facebook page. “If I was smart, I would have started a Facebook page for her a long time ago,” DeCastro said.
“Lemon’s been around a long time. I think she’s 8 or 9 maybe. She’s a hotel cat. She just hangs out with all the guests. Everybody feeds her. She’s an outdoor cat. She owns the courtyard.”
The feral kitten was spayed years ago by French visitors who had planned to adopt her but realized they couldn’t take her with them. “I think I have somebody who’s going to adopt her, a pretty frequent guest,” DeCastro said. “She’s well taken care of.”
At least a yard of drywall was removed last month from around the bottom walls of the hotel to prevent mold growth. “We’ve been mitigating from the flooding and making sure everything’s taken care of,” DeCastro said, noting that he still has five employees, some of whom have been with him for more than 15 years. “Little by little, they are finding other employment,” he said.
Lemon Tree Inn was a popular honeymoon spot and a favorite place to stay for many travelers, especially European visitors, during the summer. It would usually sell out from Christmas to the end of the season in April. Promoted with the tagline “A Touch of Key West in the Heart of Old Naples,” the charming hotel included 34 tropical guest rooms named after trees such as dogwood, powder puff and seagrape. Most of the uniquely decorated rooms had colorful Adirondack chairs outside facing a swimming pool and a courtyard garden with a small gazebo.
“The hotel promoted socializing with other guests the way it was set up,” DeCastro said.
Continental breakfast was served poolside, while lemonade was served all day. Guests could rent bicycles at the hotel and ride to the beach or nearby shops, galleries and restaurants.
The slightly more than an acre of the Lemon Tree Inn property is proposed to be redeveloped to create Two Ten West, a three-story building with 12 residential condominiums above a ground floor with 8,637 square feet of commercial space. The proposal includes a 54-space parking garage on the ground level and a second-floor amenity deck. Six of the 12 dwelling units are on the second floor, while the other six are on the third floor, according to architectural plans filed with the city by MHK Architecture & Planning.
Developer Ryan “Chip” Youmans, president of Naples-based Platinum Developments LLC, is casually optimistic that there will be a demand for the high-end, mixed-use project.
“We are really excited about this project. It’s west of 41, walking distance to the beach and Old Naples. Our plan is to start construction in the second quarter of 2023 with an estimated completion at the end of 2024,” said Youmans, who also recently developed 850 Central, a mixed-use property on the corner of Central Avenue and Eighth Street South in Naples.
Each condominium unit will be 2,800 to 3,900 square feet with three to five bedrooms. “We are building large condos that live like single-family homes,” Youmans said. “Every condo will have a two-car garage and fantastic outdoor living. Homeowners won’t have to sacrifice quality, amenities or square footage to have all the conveniences of maintenance-free condo living.”
Every owner will have their own private rooftop terrace and other amenities include a state-of-the-art fitness center and a resort-style pool with cabanas and tropical landscaping. Youmans envisions possible commercial uses such as an art gallery, a yacht rental office and jewelry or furniture stores.
“We don’t have any tenants yet,” he said. “We haven’t even started marketing it yet. We’re just not ready yet.” The project still needs final approval from the Naples Design Review Board, site plan approval from the city, and a building permit.
“We’re going through site plan application now,” he said. “We did get preliminary Design Review Board approval. We have to go back for final.”
The project was on track to start in June, but it may be able to start earlier now, Youmans said. “I think we could start in March or April. Probably April we could start demolition,” he said.
The Lemon Tree Inn is going the way of many mom-and-pop hotels and motels in an area of Naples just a few blocks away. Modern redevelopment projects have replaced quaint accommodations.
The nearby Sea Shell Motel was demolished three years ago on the corner of U.S. 41 and First Avenue South. The 30-room hotel built in 1944 is the construction site for Stella Naples, another three-story, mixed-use project that will feature 10 luxury residences on two floors above a small collection of shops and offices on the ground level.
The 49-room Trails End Motel closed 20 years ago after operating for more than 50 years on the corner of U.S. 41 and Third Avenue. Robb & Stucky’s home furnishings showroom stands on that site today. Motel Stewart, which also dates back to the early 1950s, is now the Forty One Ten Design Park site on U.S. 41, a block north of Central Avenue.
The Lemon Tree Inn launched in 1949 as Naples Motor Inn. It started as a motel with a series of buildings with two rooms and two carports next to the rooms. That changed sometime in the late ‘50s, Kalmans said, when the buildings and carports were enclosed. “Then in ‘95 and ‘96 it was totally renovated, windows, doors everything,” he said. It was rebranded the Lemon Tree Inn in 1996, and Kalmans bought it in 2001.
Kalmans had planned to redevelop the site nearly a decade ago and create a new hotel, but it didn’t happen. “At one point, we had to either totally redo the place or sell,” he said. “We did a lot of upgrades back then.”
Either way, the hotel faced redevelopment because it had more or less aged out. “It’s disappointing but understandable,” DeCastro said.
Although it’s tough to see another piece of local nostalgia succumb to redevelopment, DeCastro believes change is inevitable to the Naples landscape. “I’ve been here almost 17 years, and I can’t imagine what it must have been like 25 years ago,” he said.
The Lemon Tree brand and maybe even an inn with laid-back charm could return to the Naples market eventually. Kalmans would like to find another location soon. “We are looking for another property,” he said. “We have been looking. We have all the rights to the name and everything in it. If we can find someplace to move the operation to, we would.”
“Tim Aten Knows,” a column answering local questions from readers, is published every Friday at GulfshoreBusiness.com. Follow Tim Aten on social media: @TimAtenKnows on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.