By Erika Webb
A recent visit to the Red Roof Café, in Orange City's historic and storied 1876 Heritage Inn, revealed a new vibe.
The place is freshly painted, immaculately kept and the menu is compellingly varied.
So sparked the question: What about the rest of this old building that spent several years dwelling in rickety self-fulfilling prophecy as the White Elephant?
As such it was a hodgepodge of little shops struggling to make it.
Greasy spoons came and went. While there, they mollified the hungry with same-sameness.
Suddenly, there's something to talk about.
Sunil Taneja bought the hotel three months ago from Amy DiVittorio for $1.05 million. Mr. Taneja got right to work expanding the restaurant kitchen, improving some of the building's 30 guestrooms, sprucing up the grounds and working with the city to remedy the property's existing code violations.
One of those is the sign out front. The nearly 12-foot tall sign is not in compliance with city ordinance.
"They want it down so we're getting it down," Mr. Taneja said.
Orange City's sign ordinance requires signs to be no taller than 8 feet and must be set back 8 feet from the right of way, according to Orange City Development Services Director Alison Stetner.
"It has to be a monument with some aesthetic standards and the address has to be on it," Ms. Stetner said. "We sat down with (Mr. Taneja) and offered up some suggestions on how to make it compliant."
Mr. Taneja said the city has been very nice to him, has given him good direction and ample time to make the required improvements to his property.
His research paid off.
After checking into the area online and consulting with his sister and brother-in-law in Orlando, Mr. Taneja, who was in Singapore at the time, said it took him about five minutes to decide to buy the historic landmark, sight unseen.
"It was historical," he said. "I was planning to buy a hotel around Orlando. There were several properties available, but this one seems to stand out, the way it was built in 1876."
Mr. Taneja's exploration included delving into the area's demographics and crime rate.
"I thought it was a good place," he said.
A native of India, Mr. Taneja was in the Merchant Navy for 30 years. During that time he lived in Indonesia, Hong Kong and Singapore. He said he'd been to the United States once or twice but his first real trip here was with his family in December.
His parents, Brijkishnore and Premkumar Taneja, live in India. Mr. Taneja said their support was a primary factor in his decision. They were very supportive, he said, and he bought the hotel two days after his arrival.
His son, Nilay also still lives in India, and is studying Biotechnology in a master's program there. His daughter Gauri is a junior at University High School in Orange City.
As is customary in eastern cultures Mr. Taneja said he and his wife, Sanju, speak with their parents daily at best, every other day, at least.
Not knowing "what was under the building or over it" might have deterred some, but Mr. Taneja said he is looking at the improvements he's making to the structure as "a labor of love and a pleasure."
"You can have a Holiday Inn Express or a Hampton Inn and they have their own charm, but we have our own charm here. You cannot beat this charm," he said.
When he wanted to reopen the first-floor bar, he said locals advised him to create an "upscale, premium bar." Mr. Taneja said the community's opinion is of important consideration to him so the bar will offer jazz music on Saturday nights and will have a "decent atmosphere."
Just outside the bar, in the lobby, the 1870 circa piano is undergoing restoration as well. Countless coats of paint are being painstakingly removed and the striker keys have been sent out for repair.
"The interior tuning and pitch is good," Mr. Taneja said.
Ryan Stout, the inn's chief of maintenance, said Mr. Taneja, a determined preservationist, has asked him not to replace anything original to the building unless absolutely necessary. And, Mr. Stout said, Mr. Taneja is "the ox that pulls the cart out of the ditch."
"The first time we ever got slammed in the café, they called up to the office for help," Mr. Stout said. "I ran into the kitchen and Sunil was up to his elbows (in suds) in the dish room, washing dishes."
Mr. Taneja said the members of his staff are "lovely, dedicated people."
In addition to standard and deluxe guest rooms, the first floor features the café, postal museum, a beauty salon, barber shop and souvenir gift shop as well as the American Heroes Network, a charitable organization for disabled veterans.
With the help of some of the American Heroes affiliates, Mr. Taneja will begin conducting auctions on the property in April. Some of the proceeds will go to various charities.
Speed Weeks and Bike Week visitors saw to it the 20 upstairs rooms were "fully-booked," Mr. Taneja said.
He's been approached by members of a local cigar club and the Corvette Club, who want to have meetings and gatherings in the banquet hall, and he said the West Volusia Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Red Hat Society already meet there regularly.
"My aim is to have it activity oriented," Mr. Taneja said. "People should say, 'Let's go there and sit.'"
Another near-future goal is to reinstate the hotel's historic reputation of being "the place" to celebrate the 4th of July.
"I hope to try and have a good celebration here," Mr. Taneja said.
The restaurant, under the direction of Chef Hector Rodriguez, has started featuring some Indian and Puerto Rican dishes in addition to bringing "pizza back." Mr. Taneja said they are in the process of preparing outdoor accommodations to allow for the Steamboat, a Japanese/Korean combination of soup and barbeque which is cooked over hot coals.
Once the hub of West Volusia, the historic landmark has served a number of purposes, many of the more recent ones defeated.
In 1876 the area's first post office was established in what is now home to one of only three postal museums in the United States. Hugh DeYarman the hotel's original owner was Orange City's postmaster from 1889 to 1893 while also serving as the city's fourth mayor.
At that time there were 12 guest rooms, a lobby and public rooms on the first floor.
Many years, and several owners later, in the 1930s, the hotel's Rainbow Room, with its black onyx bar, glass bricks, colored lights and leather booths, drew people from miles around and became a hangout for race car drivers as well as a no-no for Stetson University students who were threatened with expulsion if discovered frequenting the bar.
From 1954 to 1973, Charles and Carol Forrer opened a nursing home there, eventually housing 49 residents and employing 32 workers. When forced to close the nursing home due to state regulations prohibiting such uses in frame buildings, Mrs. Forrer painted the building white and filled the front rooms with craft stores. She called it the White Elephant, and for decades, the name stuck.
Church services for various denominations were conducted there on and off throughout most of hotel's existence.
Mrs. Forrer retained an interest in the property, holding mortgage notes for several would-be purchasers until 1995 when she took the property back, returned it to its original purpose -- a hotel -- and renamed it the 1876 Heritage Inn.
Ms. DiVittorio bought the building in 2003.
In 1997, Mr. Taneja also founded Sunrise Academy in Dehradon, India, a K-12 school, which also offers a bachelor's program in education, a diploma in pharmacy and distance learning courses.
He respects the past, has hope for the future and believes in the goodness of people everywhere.
"When you travel east, you realize people are good," Mr. Taneja said. "And here people are just as good as they are anywhere else. They are a reflection of us."
Asked to describe how he feels about being here, Mr. Taneja said, smiling, "At home. Orange City is beautiful. So far, so good."