Florida – Day 9, February 12 (part 3) – Henry B. Plant Museum – The original Tampa Bay Hotel

Driving down a road lined with laundromats, liquor stores and coffee shops, with modern skyscrapers in the distance, something like this is pretty much the last thing you’re expecting to see:

This Moorish-revival design with an astonishing combination of detailed woodwork, red brick, and stainless steel minarets is the original Tampa Bay Hotel, built by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant in 1888 at a cost (then) of over 2.5 million dollars. Dang.
The hotel covered 6 acres, held over 500 rooms, and is 1/4 mile long. It was equipped with the first elevator ever installed in Florida, which is still in use today. Every room had electric lights and telephones (another first for the state). Many rooms even included private baths, complete with full-size tub.

Sometimes bigger is not better, and unfortunately for Mr. Plant, although Florida would become a mecca for easterners searching for winter warmth, those same easterners had some troubles with their financial situations in the 1920’s, and the massive hotel became too expensive to run after the stock market crash, and closed in 1930.

Even before the Depression, although the hotel housed many well-known celebrities, it was rarely full. Mr. Plant had a brilliant idea in 1898, convincing the US Military to use his hotel as a base of operations for the Spanish-American War in Cuba. Generals and high ranking officers stayed in the lavish rooms, while the enlisted men camped on the surrounding acreage. Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were there, with Roosevelt retaining a suite of rooms which he shared with his wife in the evening, spending the day leading his men on battle exercises on the lawn.

The Generals would gather on the wide veranda, sip lemonade, and discuss strategy.

Many people, disdainful of the lavish surroundings, began to call the conflict “The Verandah War”.

Walking on these wide and shady verandas, I can imagine these guys all dressed in seersucker suits and straw hats, sipping a gin and tonic and so removed from life and death amongst an infantry already battling yellow fever before they ever saw the enemy.

But that was almost 150 years ago, and how did this behemoth survive all these years? Thank the University of Tampa. Back in late 1933, the fledgling Tampa Bay Junior College was looking for a home, and was allowed to move into the hotel. Because of the large amount of space, the college was able to expand, eventually becoming the University.

In 1941, the city of Tampa signed a 99 year lease with the University for $1.00 a year, excluding the southeast wing of the building which would then house a museum.

Because this all happened very shortly after the closure of the hotel, most of the original artwork and furniture was still intact. This is amazing to us, since most of the historic homes we visit usually are filled with a few “original” pieces, and the rest of the stuff is simply “period correct”. And boy does this place have stuff. Every room is crammed to the gills full of unbelievably beautiful statuary, artwork, pottery, mirrors, furniture, it really is difficult to take it all in.

Admission is $10 for adults and only $4 for kids under 13. You are each given a hand-held device which gives an audio tour, and there is a short movie which covers the basics of the hotel’s history.

The artwork is amazing, and although some of the items are original bronzework, the Plant family wasn’t above a little deception to save a dime here or there, some of the statues are actually cast iron which are stained to look bronze.

Rooms are set up in vignettes, some, like this bedroom (part of a suite), are near-original condition:
I think this room looks like heaven. Well, in the winter. Summer would be more in the opposite direction.

The doorways into each room also have a grand Moorish design

The frosted panes of glass in the doors were originally fabric-covered panels, but the top windows are original.The outside doors carry on the same motif:

The exterior of the building is very well preserved, with very little evidence of any changes due to its use by the university.

I can’t believe this is all stainless steel. The cost would be astronomical if you tried to re-create this today.

This is me getting all artsy with my photography skills (or not).

The Plant Museum is a very neatly preserved capsule of early life in Florida, and definitely worth a few hours of your time.

There is also the 8-acre Plant Park adjacent to the museum, which houses some historic sculptures, and actually does have plants! It’s a nice grassy area to enjoy a picnic lunch or just let the kids run around. We didn’t take time to check it out, since I was really tired and was very ready to check into our room and just relax.

So, where are we staying for the next two nights? Keep in mind we are cheap. Also keep in mind that I do not want to be so cheap that we’re staying in a No-tel Motel in a bad section of town.

Well, Priceline really came through for us. I’d been plugging away at Name Your Own Price for a few weeks prior to our vacation, and finally hit the jackpot with a $43 bid which was accepted by Hyatt Place! Yep, serious score. Regular discounted rooms there are $144 a night. Here’s what our big-spending hundred bucks got us for two nights:

Out of the picture and to the left are the desk, wet bar, and refrigerator. Sure was nice to stretch out and have a sofa to sit on after spending a week at Pop Century in a 260 square-foot room!

By 7pm I climbed into bed with a book, and promptly fell asleep.

Tomorrow morning, Busch Gardens!


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