SULPHUR SPRINGS - Community activists waged a losing battle to save the turn-of-the century Sulphur Springs Hotel & Arcade from its fate. In April 1976, the nearly 50-year-old Mediterranean-style structure - dubbed "a city under one roof" by Ripley's Believe It or Not - came tumbling down. "They meant all the good in the world," local historian Linda Hope, publisher of the Penny Saver, said of the activists. "They were fighting the wrong crowd." The hotel and arcade were replaced by a parking lot in front of the Tampa Greyhound Track, filling one block of Nebraska Avenue between Sitka Street and Waters Avenue. Ask any longtime Sulphur Springs resident about the neighborhood's history and Hope says that within five minutes they will say, "It broke my heart when they tore down the arcade.""It was everything," she said. In the 1920s, Sulphur Springs was in its infancy as a tourist mecca, drawing locals and Northern visitors to its spring rumored to have curative properties. Tampa real estate promoter Josiah Settle Richardson saw an opportunity. He bought about 100 acres along the Hillsborough River, built tourist cottages and opened a park with a swimming pool, bathhouse, alligator farm, dance pavilion and a shed for Tampa's streetcars. Nearly seven years later he added the second-floor hotel and apartments with a ground-floor arcade of European-style columns, arches and terrazzo walkways. He spent lavishly to get what he wanted. He so disliked the original glass installed in the arcade's skylight that Hope said he replaced it with purple and blue stained glass from Egypt, "almost like a cloud in its design." In the 1930s, Richardson mortgaged his property to build the iconic Gothic medieval water tower that proved to be his undoing. It didn't help that a hurricane brought floodwaters to Sulphur Springs or that the Great Depression devastated the nation's economy. When business owners failed to pay their rent, Richardson defaulted on his loan and had to sell his property. The hotel and arcade's glory days in the 1940s and '50s progressed under new ownership. But interstate construction in the late 1960s and a drug culture that took off in the 1970s and '80s saw the neighborhood decline. Hope said a flood in the 1960s weakened the arcade's foundation, and in following years the building's upkeep was neglected. Before the arcade's destruction, residents could shop at Maves five-and-dime, at Badcock Furniture, Sanders and Whitehead's drugstores, and Linder's Jewelry. Through the years, the "city under one roof" saw dozens of businesses come and go: a bank, a bakery, drugstores, grocery stores, a hardware store, a liquor store, a pool hall, a barber shop, a post office and a sheriff's office.
Reporter Kathy Steele can be reached at (813) 259-7652.
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