Only the tattered remains of an elaborate marina today mark the site of one of Biloxi’s largest and most famous resort complexes. The Broadwater Beach holds a firm place in the memory of many a resident of the area, but the site holds only the promise of future development today. Its history is one which deserves to be told, particularly as it portended the future of the Mississippi Gulf Coast as we know it today long before the arrival of legalized gambling. The hotel itself was the product of illicit gain, having been built by Pete Martin Sr., a well known gambler, rum runner and raconteur. His establishment was a modest hotel in the “modern” style we know today as Art-Deco. In those days, its clean lines and rounded front with glass block and overhanging eaves would have simply been modern design. As built, the hotel had only 66 rooms on four floors and in a handful of cottages scattered around the grounds. Martin built the “Beach House Pier” across the street, an ambitious 600-foot fishing pier with a dancing pavilion, barber and beauty shops, a snack bar and the inevitable casino with “sports results” to boot. While never exactly legal, Martin’s casino flourished until Estes Kefauver swept through the Coast in the 1950s. After that, some say the gambling simply moved across the street into the main hotel.
Brighter days would bathe the Broadwater in the bright spotlight that only money and imagination can bring. The money came from the new owner, Texas oilman Joe Brown, and the imagination came from his redoubtable wife, Dorothy, a native of New Orleans. Mr. Brown wasted no time in dying so that his wife could spend even more money on the property. Spend she did. Three million dollars alone went to build an elaborate marina which was built in 1963. Still more money bought a new face for the Broadwater and a sweeping concrete canopy marked the new entrance as one fit for celebrities. Mrs. Brown was intent upon creating the best resort on the Coast, surpassing everything in its wake. She added tennis courts, riding stables and later purchased the old Great Southern Golf Course nearby. The Sun and Sea Courses would be added in 1968 and 1974.
The main building was expanded with a grand dining room called the Royal Terrace which overlooked a swimming pool fit for Hollywood. The Lanai wing had the largest and nicest rooms and suites in the resort, but there were many other options. Cottages and apartment-like wings were scattered through the 260 wooded and landscaped acres and guests were ferried around in golf carts if they didn’t care to drive to their rooms. The playground atmosphere managed to continue right up through the late 1980s when the hotel began its first signs of decline. With the arrival of legalized gambling in 1992, the future of the Coast was set in stone, and the hotel was quickly sold to gambling interests.
John E. Connelly of Pittsburgh and his company, the President Casino Corporation, bought the now slightly drooping hotel. Instead of improving the hotel, the new owners placed their resources into gambling, and lots of it. More rooms were needed, so they simply purchased the former Biloxi Hilton nearby and renamed it the Broadwater Tower. Nary a penny was spent on the hotel and its decline turned into freefall as ever more elaborate plans were bandied about for its eventual replacement. To her credit, longtime manager Leigh MacConnell, one of the first women to head a large resort of this type, held to her standards as long as she could. It was a losing battle and the Broadwater would finally close its doors for the last time on July 30, 2005. There wasn’t even a whimper of protest as much of the property had been obscured by years of renovation and expansion. In the following month, Katrina would do a little renovation of her own, leaving the property in shambles.
The new owners, W.C. “Cotton” Fore and construction magnate Roy Anderson had even bigger plans than the failed “Destination Broadwater,” a poorly thought-out plan which was jettisoned by the Corps of Engineers in 2001. Their plan called for 3,375 condominium units, 1900 hotel rooms and a host of shops, restaurants and other entertainment options. This didn’t pan out either. Subsequent attempts at leasing the property to the Mashantucket Pequots or other groups also came to naught. The property is still owned by Fore and Anderson and one hopes that it will soon be home to something more than an empty lot.
On a personal note, I had never stayed at the Broadwater, but had visited several times for lunch at the Royal Terrace. My recollections of elegant china on crisp linen and waitstaff in crisp white jackets were jarred into reality when I visited again in the late 1990s. I was allowed to walk through what remained of the original Art-Deco section of the building, little more than a corridor of tiny former guest rooms which obviously hadn’t been used in more than a decade. By this time, the Broadwater was entering the terminal stages of its desuetude. I walked over to the former Hilton where I had been a guest before in its Hilton days. Opening the door to the lobby was like licking an ashtray. The formerly exotic swimming pool with its tented swim-up bar inside was a disaster area and almost cried out for the wreckers to come and put the place out of its misery. Indeed, the former Hilton/Broadwater Tower was demolished in 2006 for the Ocean Club, a condominium-hotel which occupies the site today. The Hilton, however, had been built for quick profit and had virtually no architectural features worth preservation. Buildings of every period deserve preservation, but the Hilton wasn’t one of them.
Was the original part of the Broadwater worth saving? It was certainly worth saving, but it must be taken into account that relatively little of the original structure had survived unaltered, even before Katrina. As with the Tivoli, had there been a will to preserve the building, it could have been accomplished. To the new owners, no doubt, an aging and decrepit resort well past its prime must have seemed an impediment to progress. To those who remember it, though, the Broadwater represented a vibrant slice of their history, a pleasure dome of nearly boundless proportions. The new palaces of pleasure may be bigger and glossier, but they are not always better- especially in an architectural sense. Decorum has been traded for convenience time and time again. Wouldn’t it be nice to see something just a bit like the old Broadwater rise from the site again?