The Wilmar, Fort Lauderdale’s second grand hotel after the Broward, did not open as planned. Not by a long shot.
The original owner was the first mayor of Fort Lauderdale, William Marshall (hence “Wilmar”). But he ran out of funds after downturns in the 1920s, leaving for years an eight-story steel skeleton on Las Olas Boulevard at Second Avenue.
Enter another prime mover in the city’s history, Robert Hayes Gore Sr. He purchased the unfinished building and nearly a year later it opened as the 110-room “Governors Club.”
According to historians such as Jane Feehan, the hotel became a gathering place for politicians and celebrities, and for many years a landmark in the city. In the early years singer Kate Smith and broadcaster Lowell Thomas were guests.
Six years before this hotel venture, Gore himself was riding the crest of a successful publishing career. He bought the city’s sole paper, the Daily News and Evening Sentinel, which would later become the Fort Lauderdale News.
Born in poverty on a small farm in Kentucky in 1886, Gore was said to be fascinated with newspapers as a child. He got a job early and worked his way up to a spot as editor-publisher in the Scripps chain. By dint of his forceful personality and energy, he was soon heading newspapers in Evansville and Terre Haute, Indiana.
Then came one of those ideas that begins small and explodes into the mass market. (And eventually winds up making its creator enough money for a fabulous estate along the New River.)
At the Terre Haute Post, Gore came up with the notion of “giving away” $1,000 travel life insurance policies with new newspaper subscriptions. It was an immediate hit, so Gore found an underwriter and took his program national. Within a year, he was worth just over a hundred million dollars – that’s over $2 billion today.
So why name the hotel The Governors Club? Well, Gore had a brief stint as governor of Puerto Rico in 1933. That position was a reward from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, for whom Gore served as campaign finance manager. (In both business and politics, Gore divided his time among his interests in Indiana, Chicago and Fort Lauderdale.)
As Governor Gore, the man had some strange ideas. Instead of birth control (espoused by some to deal with overpopulation), he urged relocating Puerto Ricans to Florida. He also supported the legalization of cockfighting to attract mainland tourists. (Neither idea went anywhere, apparently.)
But Governor Gore’s biggest misstep was his plan for schools to teach in English. This attracted the notice of none other than Eleanor Roosevelt, who came to Puerto Rico to campaign against the idea.
According to historian Stuart McIver, Gore traveled all the way back to the White House to confront FDR. “If Mrs. Roosevelt is going to be president, or governor of Puerto Rico,” he said, “she ought to be officially appointed. I’m not going to stay in Puerto Rico as a figurehead.”
Whose side do you think FDR took? Gore resigned, but the title “governor” stayed with him. Yet Gore himself suggested later that the name came from the hotel’s hosting a Southern Governors’ Conference soon after opening.
The building was still in use in the early 1980s, but it was known mostly for the breakfast-and-lunch place on the first floor. It was favored by staff on their break from the 4 a.m. shift that produced, ironically, the afternoon edition of what had once been Gore’s Fort Lauderdale News.
As other hotels like The Riverside were built, and then as beach hotels became the big draw, the Governors Club lost its luster. For ten years it lay vacant as a bid to preserve the hotel as a historical landmark failed. It was demolished in 1995.
Gore, who had married and had nine children, sold his paper to the Tribune Company from Chicago in 1963. After such an impactful life in many places, he became most invested in his life here. He died in 1972 and is buried at Lauderdale Memorial Park.