Armory shook up history of Tampa
Thousands of people pass by the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory every day. However, few have any idea of the history that resides within the walls of the building that sits unoccupied and largely unnoticed along Howard Avenue in West Tampa. The Armory sits atop a site that is historic in and of itself. During the summer of 1898, Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders used the open land as their campsite in the days leading up to the Spanish-American War. The space later came to be known as Benjamin Field, named for George Benjamin, one of the founders of West Tampa. Benjamin donated the land to the city of West Tampa in 1896 for use as a park. In the early 1910s, Benjamin Field became an airfield. Aviation was still in its infancy, and pioneering pilots like Lincoln Beachey participated in several air meets at the field — and accomplished one of the first night flights in aviation history at that site. During the 1920s, a wooden boxing arena was constructed at Benjamin Field. Matches were held there on a regular basis.The 116th Field Artillery unit of the Florida National Guard used Benjamin Field as its home base, but the need for a large facility to house the men and armaments continued to grow. Construction of two brick buildings, through the Civil Works Administration (CWA), provided some room for the 116th, but a larger structure proved necessary. On Aug. 26, 1938, funding through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the amount of $270,730 was approved for the construction of the main armory building, followed by another allotment of $91,150 on Dec. 23, 1940. The new armory was named in honor of Col. Homer W. Hesterly. Hesterly was one of the organizers of the 116th Field Artillery, which first mustered into service at the casino on the grounds of the Tampa Bay Hotel on Dec. 5, 1921. The National Guard scheduled the opening of the new armory for Dec. 8, 1941. What should have been a festive occasion turned into a very somber one, as the nation reacted to the previous day's attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese military. The dedication went on as planned, but the tone reflected the new anxiety overwhelming the nation. The armory served as the headquarters for the 3rd Air Force during World War II. Following the conclusion of the war, the armory still saw service as home to the local National Guard unit, but it also became a venue for a wide variety of musical acts, sporting events and political speeches. Three men in particular — Elvis Presley, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and President John F. Kennedy — made appearances at the armory that are still talked about to this day. The first of the three to appear at the armory was Elvis. He performed at Fort Homer Hesterly four separate times. The first came on May 8, 1955, followed by a concert on July 31, with Elvis appearing as one of many acts as part of the Hank Snow Jamboree. It was during the July show that one of the most iconic photographs of Elvis' early career was taken. Tampa photographer William "Red" Robertson, co-owner of the Robertson & Fresh company, was hired by Col. Tom Parker to document the concert. Robertson's pictures of Elvis singing, dubbed the "tonsil" photo, was used as the cover photo of Elvis' first LP on the RCA label, released in 1956. The last two Elvis shows at the armory, Feb. 19 and Aug. 5, featured Elvis as the headliner for the evening. King also brought crowds to their feet at the armory. His Dec. 19, 1961, appearance attracted 4,200 people to hear the emerging civil rights leader. King's powerful speech motivated the growing local civil rights movement and encouraged their continued push for equality in Tampa and Florida. Perhaps the most iconic person to speak at Fort Homer Hesterly was Kennedy. His Tampa visit, just four days before his assassination in Dallas, Texas, included a speech to the Florida Chamber of Commerce at the armory. He focused on the perception that he was anti-business, a claim he denied, telling the 4,500 in attendance that "whether we work in the White House or the State House, or in the house of industry or commerce, mankind is our business." The armory was home to a more down-home, but certainly no less popular, cast of characters — professional wrestlers. Fort Homer Hesterly was an incredibly popular venue for wrestling matches, and many nationally (and even internationally) known grapplers got their start at the armory. By the turn of the 21st century, the old armory building was too outmoded for the National Guard. The Guard moved out in 2005 and soon turned the facility over to the city of Tampa. The armory building has subsequently been registered as a local and national landmark and is among a handful of buildings that the city is offering as a public-private redevelopment project. A number of interesting propositions have been offered, including home to a film studio, a cultural arts center and as a Veterans Administration medical clinic. Although nothing has materialized with these plans, the building sits ready to continue to make history for another 70 years.
Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your comments and questions and can be reached by phone, (813) 228-0097 or by email, [email protected]