The beginning of Florida’s resort industry can be traced to the vision of railroad magnate, Henry B. Plant. He brought his railway to Tampa in 1884, utilizing the town’s port to offer his customers steamship travel to Mobile (Alabama), Bermuda, Jamaica, and even Cuba.
His grand vision required an equally grand hotel so in 1888 he hired architect J.A. Woods to design a massive structure in the Moorish Revival style (mostly). Plant insisted on a few distinctive design elements – the finished building was certainly unique with minarets and gingerbread trim.
Plant’s 511 room hotel took three years to build and cost $2 million (which does not include the $500,000 in fine furnishings that he and his wife sourced from Europe). When it opened on February 5, 1891 the six-acre hotel offered top of the line accommodations: every room boasted a telephone and electricity while most even had a private bath. The hotel also offered a billiard room, barbershop, shoeshine service, beauty shop, flower shop, telegraph office, formal dining room, Grand Salon, Reading Room, and a Music Room with orchestra.
At 150 acres, the grounds of the hotel were no less grand, encompassing a 18-hole golf course, tennis courts, bowling alley, racetrack, baseball field (where Babe Ruth is said to have hit a home run of record length), casino, card rooms, exposition hall, flower conservatory, a croquet greensward, shuffleboard courts, boathouse, hunting and fishing grounds, stables, kennels, and an indoor heated swimming pool.
Sadly, only a small portion of the grounds remain but surprisingly, the massive building still stands, though the majority of it has been repurposed into the University of Tampa. The south wing now serves as a museum to the hotel’s founder, which I had the pleasure of touring a couple months ago. Tampa is fortunate to have this remnant of the Gilded Age.
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