Un-Conventional Tampa



Downtown Tampa

The non-stop news cycle from the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week was for the most part nauseatingly repetitive (check the word cloud: “America” – “President” – “Mitt Romney”) and occasionally hilariously bizarre (thank you, Clint Eastwood). But now that it’s over, I want to reconnect with a meaning of the word “Tampa” that does not equal the RNC. To me that meaning goes back some years ago when I had a chance to visit.

Tampa is not necessarily on Florida’s A-list of destinations. It doesn’t have the vibrancy of Miami, history and natural charm of Pensacola, or Orlando’s Disney World (ok it has Busch Gardens but it doesn’t quite measure up). When I was there is also felt in a large part under construction with street closures and cranes dotting the landscape. So to me the highlights were a few special, memorable places rather than the city as a whole.

Tampa skyline

Tampa skyline

Before the 1880s Tampa was a sleepy little town at the mouth of the Hillsborough River that grew around Fort Brooke, a military outpost established in 1823 to guard the American acquisition of Florida territory against Seminole Indians and to deny save haven to escaped slaves. Tampa Convention Center now stands at the old fort’s side. It wasn’t until the railroad reached Tampa that the city began the transformation into its modern self. The railroad’s arrival was the work of a prominent industrialist, Henry B. Plant, who invested in developing Florida’s train system, making Tampa an important rail terminus. His investment was quite successful as demonstrated by the fact that in 1891 he built, well, this:

Tampa Bay Hotel

Tampa Bay Hotel

Tampa Bay Hotel… Set among 150 acres of tropical wilderness, it was one of the most lavish and modern complexes of it time. The grounds featured 18-hole golf course, tennis and croquet courts, exotic gardens, a boathouse, racetrack, casino, heated indoor swimming pool, and a bowling alley, to mention just a few amenities. The Moorish Revival-style structure itself – minarets and all – had 511 rooms, among the first in Florida to be electrified. The investors were leery of building something of this magnitude and Plant financed the project himself to the tune of $2.5 million, plus another half a million for furnishing, or about $62 million total in today’s dollars.

Tampa Bay Hotel in 1925

Tampa Bay Hotel in 1925 (Photo: http://www.hillsborough.wateratlas.usf.edu)

As it turned out, cautious investors had a point. Although the hotel hosted many distinguished guests and fancy events during the following decade, it wasn’t until the Spanish-American war of 1898 that it was filled to capacity when Henry Plant convinced the Secretary of War to make Tampa the port of embarkation for troops departing for Cuba. The Tampa Bay Hotel became the center of military planning and logistics. But it began a slow decline when Plant died in 1899 and his heirs sold the Hotel to the City of Tampa a few years later. It operated as a hotel until 1932. Today, a section of the former hotel is a museum preserving the history of this unique, if somewhat odd, piece of Tampa’s history. The rest of “Plant’s Palace” is a part of the University of Tampa, known much more modestly these days as Plant Hall. Although the richly decorated interiors were only preserved in the museum part, the spirit of what this place once was still hovers among classrooms, offices, and hallways.

TampaTampa Bay Hotel was a marvel of its time. But wouldn’t Henry Plant be even more amazed to see its surroundings today? No longer a lavish outpost in the middle of Florida’s wilderness, it now overlooks glass-and-steel towers just across the Hillsborough River.

Plant’s railroad project affected Tampa in more ways than one. In addition to connecting the city to the continent’s rail network, Plant also established a new line of steamships from Tampa to Havana. The timing was opportune: Spanish-born Vicente Martinez Ybor, a leading cigar manufacturer, was just looking for a new base for his operations, which he previously moved from Cuba to Key West. In 1885, with the encouragement of Tampa’s Board of Trade he moved here and that is how Ybor City was born. Hundreds of migrants from Spain, Cuba, Italy, and elsewhere streamed in, making Tampa “Cigar Capital of the World”. The production peaked in 1929 with 500,000,000 hand-rolled cigars but Ybor City began to decline when the Great Depression hit and demand for cigars collapsed. The recovery didn’t begin until the 1980s and today Ybor City is a vibrant National Historic Landmark District connected to downtown Tampa by charming, retro-styled TECO line streetcars.

Ybor City

Yellow TECO line streetcar rumbling through Ybor City

Many historic buildings have also been restored, including what used to be Centro Español social club, the home of a mutual aid society established in 1891 by cigar factory workers. Today the former Centro Español lives on as Centro Ybor, a shopping complex and movie theater. Great restaurants all along 7th Avenue, too!

Centro Ybor

Centro Ybor

My final highlight of Tampa were the beaches…

Tampa beach

Tampa beach

…and in particular sunsets on the beaches around Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay sunsetCrimson red sunsets that turn ocean waves into molten metallic surface…

Tampa Bay sunsetSunsets like this that always stay with you:

Tampa Bay sunset

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