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Old Courthouse may be transformed to Le Meridien by June

Tribune staff

Downtown Tampa may see the opening of a sparkling new Le Meridien high-end hotel, built inside the former federal courthouse, by June 1 — maybe even a few weeks earlier.

Until then, there’s a frenzy of 100-150 craftsmen on site any given day, finishing a dramatic restoration, simultaneously working to build out grand ballrooms, restaurant spaces, an outdoor pool and 130-plus hotel rooms that may rent for $160 to $300 depending on the season.

When complete, the stately building on Florida Avenue between Twigg and Zack streets will become a mix of classic marble, granite columns, high ceilings and wood-paneled walls, yet with modernistic guest rooms full of sleek-lined furniture. A ground-floor courtroom will become a modern cuisine restaurant at the heart of the building.

An even larger courtroom on an upper floor will become a vast ballroom, yet retain the gold-leafed eagle that once hung above the judge’s desk. Some of the holding cells that once held prisoners in the basement will become luxury (and very cleaned out and well-lit) guest rooms down the hallway from a luxury spa.

“This is such a fun project to work on because I love old buildings,” said Gary Prosterman, chief executive of Memphis, Tenn.-based Development Services Group that’s leading the project. By the end of March, the structure should be complete enough, he said, to win an occupancy permit from the City of Tampa. Then, he’ll take six to eight weeks to fit out the building with furniture and train the hotel staff.

One perk he’s especially proud of: Because the Le Meridien brand has national partnerships with arts groups, every guest of the hotel in Tampa will be given free admission to the Tampa Museum of Art just a few blocks away.

“I feel like an expectant father,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who took a hard-hat tour of the hotel with Prosterman on Wednesday, and even hopped on the bed of a model room. Later, he added “I don’t think there is a project like this within hundreds of miles. I’m very proud of Gary.”

Colloquially called the “Old Courthouse,” parts of the building certainly are old. The structure dates back to 1905, just a few years after the Wright Brothers took their first flight, and the building functioned as a courthouse, Post Office and Customs House. Through the decades, the courts expanded and saw some of the largest crime trials in the nation pass through.

But about 10 years ago, federal court functions moved down the street to a gleaming new glass tower, and the Old Courthouse sat empty, with the City of Tampa paying for air conditioning to keep the mold at bay.

Then Prosterman announced plans for a grand, boutique-style hotel under the Le Meridien brand name, with a groundbreaking starting work last February. DSG has renovated a string of historical buildings and turned them into hotels, including a Le Meridien-brand hotel in Philadelphia that was a former YMCA built in 1911.

Even after DSG took control of the site, they had to jump scores of bureaucratic hurdles, as every federal agency seemed to have authority to sign off on the transfer, even including the Federal Aviation Administration to ensure the four-story building wasn’t too tall for air traffic.

In April last year, construction barricades went up and renovations began in earnest, including painstaking hand-work to restore the brickwork and columns on the outside. One thing the building had going for it were soaring ceilings, some 30 feet tall, huge windows and marble floors that would take millions of dollars to build if they were installed in any new building.

Many of the hardest parts of the renovation are done. The plumbing, electrical and ventilation systems are completely replaced, and most of the new walls are built out with metal studs. There were a few surprises, though. When workers removed some minor walls, the aging concrete beams above warped and cracked the walls on either side. That’s not unexpected, as concrete tends to become evermore hard and brittle over the decades, said Mark House, managing director of the Beck Group that is handling the construction. “You could hear it, like a loud Pow!,” House said. “But that’s been fixed and everything is shored up.”

Right now, Prosterman has truckloads of architectural artifacts from the building in storage, waiting to be restored and brought back in some form into the new hotel. A favorite example: Sitting now in the front lobby of the hotel is a witness box from a courtroom above. Prosterman hasn’t decided just what it will become. Maybe a reception desk, maybe something else. “That’s what makes projects like this fun,” he said.

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