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Modern Marco Island may have celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015, but a lesser-known milestone is quietly making headlines this week.

The stunning Marco Beach Hotel & Villas — today’s Marriott — reopened on Dec. 18, 1971, after extensive renovations. The unveiling 44 years ago would fuel island growth and development like never before.

Originally a 50-room hotel when it was built to greet the modern-era’s first visitors in 1965, island developers Elliott, Robert and Frank Mackle Jr. would go on to expand the property to 100 rooms in 1967.

By 1971 the brothers and their company, the Deltona Corp., spent a then-staggering sum of $18 million to further improve their beachfront showplace. A new 10-story tower — the first of two — 400 beautifully appointed rooms, much-needed convention space, and Quinn’s restaurant on the beach ushered in a new era for the Mackles and their fledgling island paradise.

Once opened, the hotel became the largest on Florida’s entire west coast. More than 400 employees were hired. Each and every guest enjoyed a Gulf view.

No expense spared

“The Mackle brothers spared no expense,’’ reflected hotel designer/architect Herb Savage who, one month shy of his 97th birthday, is the only Deltona executive team member alive today.

“The hotel unveiling in 1971 was just as exciting as the island’s opening day on Jan. 31, 1965,’’ said Savage. “Those were pretty heady times for all of us involved.’’

Like so many Mackle projects, the hands-on attention to detail for the hotel re-opening left nothing to chance. So driven was Frank Jr., he actually ordered a mock guest room to be built on the parking lot at Deltona's Miami headquarters.

The hotel’s entrance, somewhat surprising to some, was actually on the second floor.

“My father wanted it that way,’’ said Frank Mackle III. “Upon entering the wide wood and glass doors to the lobby, he wanted the guests elevated to see – through three stories of glass – an enormous pool, the blue-green waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the eye-squinting white Gulf beach all framed by tropical lawns and landscaping. If a party was to arrive a few moments before the end of the day they were spellbound by the brilliant red and orange and yellow sunsets.’’

Standard rooms were also much larger than those in similar high-class Florida resorts at the time.

Hundreds attend opening

The Marco Islander, Deltona’s color newsletter distributed far and wide, summed up the hotel’s grand opening:

The formal dedication and official opening of the new Marco Beach Hotel combined just the right mixture of ceremony and carnival; it was easily the most momentous of all grand openings since the Mackle built community was launched seven years ago.

On a sunny and warm Saturday afternoon, several hundred guests gathered in the expansive lobby of the new resort complex to formally dedicate the striking edifice which rises 10 stories above a crescent-shaped three-mile beach.

Honored guest, Florida Gov. Reubin Askew, complimented the Mackles on the new hotel. Hors d’oeuvres were served and champagne receptions were held around the hexagonal swimming pool, in its restaurants and in the convention center’s meeting rooms. A gourmet-style pool-side cocktail party followed. A lavish banquet concluded the day’s festivities in the richly appointed Promenade ballroom, where 1,000 guests were entertained by two orchestras and vocalist Jaye P. Morgan.

The jewel of the Gulf

Frank Jr. dedicated the hotel to his wife, Virginia – the ceremony actually fell on her birthday no less – and he dubbed the property “The Jewel of the Gulf.”

The publicity was monumental and it wasn’t long before major companies and organizations were planning conventions and business meetings on Marco as the Mackle brothers had anticipated all along.

“It was Dad's dream to build a world class resort that would transform Marco into a convention and tourist destination,’’ said Frank Mackle III.

How important was this hotel to the growth of Marco? Deltona records reveal that in the first year after the hotel opened, Marco condominium sales revenue nearly tripled from $4.5 million in 1971 to $12.4 million in 1972.

“More and more people were coming to Marco Island,’’ said Savage. “The hotel expansion was vitally important on so many fronts. Some visitors were here just to enjoy the hotel, golf, tennis and the beach. Others, of course, liked it here so much they sought to stay permanently. The hotel then, like now, fueled the island’s growth.’’

The launch of the new hotel may very well have been the Mackle brothers’ finest hour. In fact, reflecting back on this time, Frank Mackle III said the hotel unveiling represented “the pinnacle’’ of his father’s many achievements.

Marriott, meanwhile, purchased the property in 1979, soon built a second tower and now, four decades later, is in the midst of its own breathtaking $300 million expansion.

Over the next 13 months, a new JW Marriott will emerge, including a third tower, a host of restaurants, and the all-important meeting space to cater to the next generation of visitors to Marco.

“It’s funny how history repeats itself,’’ said Savage. “I just wish I could be here for the next 100 years to witness all the changes.’’

Coleman is the author of “Marco Island, Florida’s Gulf Playground,” a 110-page editorial/photographic narrative published in celebration of modern Marco Island’s 50th anniversary in 2015. A local bestseller, it chronicles the transformation of Marco Island from an alligator-infested swamp to one of America’s top travel destinations. The Marco Island Sun Times and The Marco Review were the book’s media partners. The book is available at Sunshine Booksellers, Marco Island Historical Museum, all resort hotel gift shops, and online at marcoislandbook.com

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