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Old courthouse transforms to elegant Le Meridien

Judge William J. Castagna pointed up to the tall ceiling of his former courtroom and told stories of the men who painted the intricate stencil work on the ceiling and gold-leafed the eagle above his bench. Now the room is a grand ballroom of the soon-to-open Le Meridien hotel, and his judge’s bench is in the lobby, delicately transformed into a long desk for guests to work.

Judge Mark Pizzo walked into his former judge’s chambers, now a hotel room with a view of Sacred Heart church — the same view he had while researching cases.

“This stairway here,” Pizzo pointed down a hall, “that’s where lawyers would meet with their clients and have their ‘Come-to-Jesus moment’ about how their case was really going.”

The hotel’s formal opening day won’t come until Monday, but this afternoon provided a moment for the judges to tour the old Federal Courthouse building, now on the finish line of being transformed into a luxurious Le Meridien hotel.❖ ❖

Hundreds of contractors are still crawling all over the property on Florida Avenue downtown. Marble workers, carpenters, painters, and a lone janitor trying to keep the floor clean.

“We’re thrilled with how it’s all come together,” said Gary Prosterman, chief executive of the company renovating the hotel. “It’s been a lot of work by a lot of people,” he said, shouting over the sound of drills and hammers. “Come back on Monday and have a drink and you’ll see it all complete.”

It took more than $27 million to renovate the building at Florida Avenue between Twigg and Zack streets into a mix of its original Beaux Arts classicism with new, ultra-modern sleekness — with marble walls and granite columns dating back to 1905 contrasted with almost nightclub style cocktail lounges, a high-end spa and modernistic guest rooms.

Prosterman said that by far the most challenging part of the project will never be seen by guests. Contractors had to remove every bit of plumbing, electrical wiring, heating and air conditioning — and remake the systems entirely for a modern building, comfortable to guests from around the world. The transformation wowed judges and guests.

The ground-floor reception lobby (once the corridor for suspects and convicts) is now a sleek, polished stone cocktail lounge flanked on each side by “Sidebar 1” and “Sidebar 2” meeting rooms. Look up at the ceiling, and there are black-and-white photographs of the Tampa area. A long jury selection desk has been transformed into a business center work-table.

In the center of the main second-floor restaurant is a 227-seat five-star restaurant called BIZOU Brasserie, with a former witness box as the host stand. All around the hotel are facets and objects of its former life. On the walls, hand-painted stencils of the original architectural drawings for lamps, cornices and doorways. A back driveway where police would bring in prisoners has been transformed into a pool deck with swaying palm trees and lounges.

“This is a hotel for the culturally minded,” said incoming Front Office Manager Dan Martin. As for how this hotel will fit in with other new hotels in the area, both Martin and Prosterman said that besides the high-end Le Meridien service, none other can match the architectural splendor of the original courthouse building.

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The structure dates back to 1905, just a few years after the Wright Brothers took their first flight, and the building first functioned as a combination Courthouse/Post Office/Customs House. At the time, many of the streets outside were still dirt. Through the decades, the courts expanded and saw some of the largest crime trials in the nation pass through.

Then 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.

For years, city leaders and neighborhood boosters kicked around ideas for how to use the space — perhaps as an art gallery/creative space, perhaps a home for a new Tampa Museum of Art.

Soon after Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn took office, he asked developers to submit ideas for several city-controlled properties, including the old courthouse. After some vetting, the city picked a plan by Memphis, Tennessee-based Development Services Group, which has a record of acquiring old, sometimes vacant urban properties and renovating them into new hotels, including a former YMCA building in Philadelphia.

DSG ultimately signed a nominal lease with the City of Tampa for the old courthouse, and the Beck Group construction firm set to work renovating the space.

Judge Steven D. Merryday walked the halls of his former chambers during today’s tour and said, when the rooms were his, they could open the windows on both sides of the building on hot days and let a strong wind come through the courthouse — a blessing when the air conditioning might fritz out.

“It’s an odd sensation,” he confessed, walking around rooms, re-arranged into bedrooms and bathrooms. “But I’m so glad this is being used again. This is such a beautiful old building.”

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On Monday, June 16, the site will have a so-called “soft opening,” where staff are technically still in training mode and the occasional contractors may still be found making final touches, but guests can chose to jump into the mix and stay a night or eat at the restaurant. A more formal grand opening ceremony is set for later in July.

Like all hotels, nightly rates will vary depending on the type and size of room and whether it’s Florida tourist and snowbird seasons. For simplicity sake, DSG officials say the 130-plus hotel rooms may rent for $180 to $280 depending on the season.

And thus this Le Meridien joins several dozen other decidedly high-end hotels around the world under that brand name, from New York to Tahiti to Cairo.

The Le Meridien also joins a growing pack of new hotels in downtown Tampa, not to mention several new or renovated hotels in the Westshore area geared to business travelers.

The Epicurean hotel opened on South Howard Avenue last autumn, focused squarely on the foodie and gourmet traveler segment. Owners of the Bern’s Steak House across the street are partners on the project.

Hotel operators also renovated the former Hyatt hotel downtown into a new Hilton property. Then a few blocks away from the Le Meridien, the Aloft hotel is set to open in July on the river at Kennedy Boulevard — a renovation of the former Mercantile Bank building into a gleaming, modernistic structure that’s part hotel and part cocktail lounge on the riverfront.

Then, Lightning hockey team owner Jeff Vinik is planning another hotel near the Forum where his hockey team plays. That project is still in the preliminary phase, having only recently sought a request to rezone a plot of land at Old Water Street and Florida Avenue.

The Le Meridien will have a formal grand opening sometime in the coming weeks, but Prosterman encouraged people to come Monday, and even to go on a treasure hunt for some of the original architectural features.

Among them, this one is well hidden: Behind the former desk of Judge Castagna are three buttons, including one for the Marshall’s service, just in case someone in the courtroom turned rowdy.

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