There is no greater iconic symbol of Tampa than the minarets and the Moorish architecture of the University of Tampa. Many know that the building was started in 1888 as a dazzling hotel and resort that attracted visitors to our city and helped put Tampa on the national map. When the hotel opened in 1891 it was billed as a lavish winter resort open from November through April each year.
What is less known about the beautiful building is how it came to be purchased by the City of Tampa in 1905 for a mere $125,000. Today, home to the University of Tampa, the building is still owned by the city.
So how did it come to pass that a city government would purchase — and then operate — a private hotel?
The story begins with Henry Plant and his vision for Tampa. Plant was a New York entrepreneur who made his money primarily through railroads and steamships. Plant visited the Jacksonville area in the 1850s and saw the potential for growth in the state. In the 1880s he extended the railroad to our city, and then envisioned a hotel designed to lure tourists. He was also motivated by a little rivalry with fellow businessman Henry Flagler, who was building a railroad on the east coast of Florida, as well as a massive, grand hotel in St. Augustine; that hotel is today home to Flagler College.
Spurred by the competition with Flagler, Plant set out to build a $3 million grand resort, complete with a golf course, tennis courts, and a racetrack.
Historian Karl Grismer described the construction of the hotel in his landmark history on Tampa:
“As the months passed, and the building grew and grew, Tampa people watched from across the river almost with awe. This was something more majestic than they had ever dreamed of having; it seemed to be a constantly growing symbol of glorious days to come.”
Touted as one of the finest hotels in the country, visitors had the luxury of electricity, hot and cold running water and even an elevator. Guests could go hunting and fishing, or even hop one of Plant’s steamships out of Port Tampa near Picnic Island, to Cuba, Jamaica or the Bahamas. The unusual Moorish building was made of red brick and reinforced with concrete, with 500 guest rooms and huge porches.
Another building on the vast grounds of the hotel housed the Tampa Bay Casino — a venue for entertainment, (though no gambling) seating for 2,000, a dance floor atop a swimming pool and a bowling alley. The Casino was destroyed by fire in 1941.
The city leaders were so enthused about the potential of the hotel they agreed to Plant’s two conditions: extend Lafayette Street a half mile west of the river and construct a bridge over the river. Today, those improvements are known as Kennedy Boulevard and the Kennedy Boulevard Bridge. Thanks to this new infrastructure, Tampa residents could cross the river into downtown without taking a ferry.
Plant’s death in 1899 made the future of the hotel less certain. Neither his widow, Margaret, nor son Morton were interested in running the hotel. In 1902 they turned it over to a syndicate, Ocean and Gulf Realty of New York City. But the hotel, which Plant had poured money into regardless of profit, fell into disrepair, and the property was soon on the market.
Tampa’s political history has always possessed a slightly chaotic angle, and what happened next was no exception. In November 1904 the sitting mayor, F.A. Salomonson, unbeknownst to the City Council, personally stepped in to purchase the hotel. Problem was, though this was a personal, private transaction, he used city police to accompany him to the hotel as he closed it down.
This caused uproar from council members who called for his resignation or impeachment. The politics of the matter was resolved with a resolution for censure of the mayor.
With the mayoral drama behind them, a committee of the City Council voted to explore the possible purchase of the hotel. The hotel was too expensive to operate and was closed, placing pressure on city leaders to act. In December 1904, the agent with Ocean and Gulf Realty gave the city an option to purchase the hotel, as well as all the other buildings on the property, including the popular Casino, the furnishings, the extensive grounds and 22 acres of land outside the city limits. The price: $125,000.
The only thing that stood between the Tampa Bay Hotel and city ownership was the approval of the voters who had to give their blessing to a bond issue at an election. The Tampa Morning Tribune strongly supported the bond issue and acquisition, opining that “nothing can be of more importance to the financial welfare of the city than the purchase of this property. …”
The voters overwhelmingly agreed, and the bond issue was approved in January 1905.
When the deed officially passed from private to public hands in June 1905, The Tampa Morning Tribune observed that the transaction represented “one of the most unique experiments in municipal socialism ever made.”
The city leased the hotel to operators who ran the hotel for many years.
In 1933 the city leased the property to the University of Tampa; the transformation from hotel to a university will be the subject of my next column.
In the meantime, if you have never been to the Plant Museum, housed on the first floor of Plant Hall, it’s worth a visit. You will leave with a greater understanding of Tampa’s history and an appreciation for the foresight of a city government nearly 100 years ago.
Pam Iorio, the former mayor of Tampa, is a speaker
and author. Her email is [email protected]