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Palma Ceia: A neighborhood rising from the pines

Tribune correspondent
Published: April 13, 2014
Tampa-Hillsborough Public Library System
This 1926 photo shows a new service station on the northwest corner of Bay to Bay and Lisbon, which is now MacDill. The building, with a later addition in the center, still stands.

South Tampa’s Palma Ceia neighborhood has long been viewed as one of the most desirable places to live in the city. But what constitutes the Palma Ceia area? When was it established? And what does Palma Ceia mean?

If you were to ask 10 people to draw the boundaries of Palma Ceia, you would likely receive 10 different answers. Defining the borders of old neighborhoods is very easy and very difficult. The easy way is to review the city’s plat books, but the feel of the neighborhood — the thing that makes defining the actual footprint more difficult — can be lost in that process.

The plat books can be very helpful, though. For Palma Ceia, the original plat dates to December 1903, with the subdivision identified by its original name: “Madrid.” This helps answer another common question: Why are there so many Spanish-themed street names in South Tampa?

The Madrid subdivision, owned by Tampa attorney Thomas Palmer and his wife, Ruby, was situated between Bayshore Boulevard and the Atlantic Coast Line railroad tracks, with today’s Fred Ball Park as the northern boundary and the block south of Santiago as the southern boundary. The Centro Español hospital, now the site of Bay Oaks Apartments, occupied that southernmost block.

Though Palmer named the subdivision Madrid, and the Centro Español hospital sat at one end of the property, the street names are of Cuban origin. They come from streets in the old section of Havana, and the most likely explanation has Angel Cuesta, president of Cuesta, Rey Cigars, sharing a map of Havana with Palmer when the two were discussing the latter’s new subdivision. Almost all of the original names remain today, with the most notable exception being Covadonga changing to Bay to Bay.

Palmer’s subdivision was not the start of people living in Palma Ceia. Untold generations of American Indians likely lived in the area, and modern history, according to Tampa historian Karl Grismer, documents that the “first known settler in what is now the Palma Ceia area was William Samuel Spencer, who located there in 1846.”

One feature that likely attracted settlers, from the first American Indians to Spencer, and probably even Palmer, is Palma Ceia Spring. The spring is featured prominently — though unnamed — on the original plat, along with a creek just to the north of the spring that emptied into Hillsborough Bay. Two years after Palmer’s original plat, a revised Madrid subdivision plan was filed with the county. The new plat had very few changes, but one interesting one is the spring received a name: Palmera Spring. The street nearest the spring already had a name: Palmira. Those two place names give an indication of the origins of the name Palma Ceia.

On Nov. 20, 1910, three years after the original plat of Madrid, real estate developer James Taylor was interviewed by the Jacksonville Times-Union regarding a new development he was planning. Taylor mentioned that his Tampa Bay Land Company recently had sold a total of 10,000 acres to individual investors in what would soon be known as Palma Ceia and Palma Ceia Park.

Taylor had been working with Palmer for at least four years before his 1910 interview, because his Tampa Bay Land Company filed an addition to the Madrid subdivision in 1906 that continued the subdivision to the west of the railroad tracks to Ferdinand Avenue. The northern boundary was San Jose Street, and the southern border was San Luis Street. Taylor continued Palmer’s naming methodology as well.

In 1907, Taylor’s Tampa Bay Land Company filed its first plat for Palma Ceia Park. It was also around this time that Palmer began advertising Palmaceia Spring, as it was then spelled, as a recreational area. Taylor’s new subdivision included his addition to the Madrid subdivision, plus a considerable amount of additional land. The border for Palma Ceia Park, beginning at the northeast corner, consisted of La Fuerza (Habana) on the northeast, down to the railroad tracks, south to San Luis, west to Cardenas (Himes), north to Palmira, then east to Lisbon (MacDill), then north to Neptuno (Neptune) then east back to La Fuerza. The plat excluded the original Madrid along with the spring and pool.

Taylor was not finished adding to his Palma Ceia holdings. In 1911, he acquired and platted the land surrounding the spring and creek, naming the subdivision Palmaceia. The recreational area around the spring, which eventually included a hotel and large swimming pool, was very popular in the early part of the 20th century. The name of the pool evolved from Palmera to Palmaceia to Palma Ceia — fitting in with the surrounding subdivision.

In 1916, one of the most prominent aspects of Palma Ceia began operations. The Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club grew out of the pine scrub land in the northwest corner of the Palma Ceia Park subdivision. Taylor was instrumental in the establishment of the country club, seeing it as a great way to sell homes in his subdivision. The area remained sparsely populated for some time, however, and stories of bird hunting after a round of golf abound.

With the opening of the golf course, the name Palma Ceia began to be applied to a large portion of the Interbay Peninsula. The origin of the name soon became lost, and theories about it began to grow. Looking at the history of the area, along with the memories of the late Leland Hawes, it seems most likely that the name is a corruption of the name Palmer combined with “ceia” from Terra Ceia. Palmer likely applied his name to the spring (Palmera) and street (Palmira) and then, eventually, the neighborhood (Palma Ceia).

Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached via email at [email protected] or phone at (813) 228-0097.