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Thursday, Sep 20, 2018
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Visitors to 21st century Tampa have a wide variety of choices when it comes to hotel accommodations. From economical motor courts to four-star high rises, there is almost always enough room for everyone — no matter their taste or budget. This has not always been the case. When the city stood at the threshold of its modern era, in the mid 1880s, population growth and tourism vastly outpaced available space. Tampa had grown from a sleepy town of just over 700 in 1880 to a bustling city of over 3,000 by 1885. Although today's traveler has hundreds of hotel options, new arrivals to Tampa back then had six: the H.B. Plant, the St. James, the Palmetto, the Collins House, the Orange Grove and the Craft House. Tampa's largest hotels were the H.B. Plant and the Palmetto. Opened on Dec.12, 1884, and operated by Jared T. Anderson, the Plant was named in honor of Henry Bradley Plant. Plant connected Tampa to the outside world with his railroad in early 1884.
Anderson billed the Plant Hotel, on the corner of Ashley and Madison, as the leading hotel of Tampa. Built to accommodate 150 guests, the 8,100-square-foot hotel featured 40 rooms with broad hallways and staircases. The hotel operated during the winter tourist season, and featured a parlor, office and reading room, plus a 100-seat dining room, large kitchen and an ice house. The Palmetto Hotel was another new addition to Tampa. Celebrated as "one of the largest, handsomest and most commodious hotels in South Florida," the Palmetto offered 100 rooms. The wood-frame hotel stood three stories tall and included a five-story observatory (the highest man-made point in Tampa) from which guests could look out on the waters of Hillsborough Bay. The grounds of the hotel covered a city block on the northeast corner of Monroe Avenue (now Florida) and Polk Street, with direct access to the South Florida Railroad. The apex of luxury was the Tampa Bay Hotel, which opened in February 1891. It was an integral part of the Plant system, Plant's interconnected collection of railroads, hotels, and steamship lines. The Tampa Bay Hotel was not Plant's first hotel in the area. In 1889, he opened the Port Tampa Inn near his newly opened shipping piers and port on the shores of Tampa Bay. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the Port Tampa Inn was that hotel guests could fish from their rooms — the hotel was built on stilts over the bay — and the kitchen staff would prepare their catch and serve it to them in the dining room. Tampa residents would have preferred that Plant build a port on the Hillsborough River, but dredging a ship channel in Hillsborough Bay was prohibitively expensive. Old Tampa Bay had a natural deepwater channel and Plant decided to build his "Port Tampa" on the west side of the Interbay Peninsula. Upon completion of the rail extension to Port Tampa, Plant built a wharf, warehouses, and a resort called Picnic Island. Port Tampa City received a state charter in 1885, a direct result of Plant's port facility. After the city completed a bridge across the Hillsborough River at Lafayette Street (now Kennedy Boulevard), Plant began construction of the Tampa Bay Hotel. He no doubt wanted to outdo the efforts of his friendly rival, Henry Flagler, who had just finished the $2 million Ponce de León Hotel at St. Augustine. Hundreds of skilled craftsmen poured into Tampa to construct the 500-room, five-story structure. The building and grounds covered six acres, and the hotel stretched half a mile in length. Hotel architect J. A. Wood took his inspiration from Turkish, Near Eastern and Moorish architecture, and he topped his hotel design with Moorish-inspired minarets that have become a symbol of Tampa. To awestruck Tampa residents, accustomed to small clapboard houses, the magnificent hotel seemed a glorious emblem of their future prosperity. Plant and his wife spent two years abroad, filling 80 railroad cars with paintings, sculptures and furniture from Europe, Japan and China to outfit the 511 hotel rooms. Rooms rented for $30 to $70 a day and guests could pay extra for an all-day guided hunting expedition. The city's first movie theatre was among the amenities of the grand hotel. Though even the most Spartan hotel today would provide unimaginable luxury to a late-19th century visitor, Tampa's early hotels served as havens to road-weary, or sea-weary, travelers, transplants and tourists. Today only the Tampa Bay Hotel survives, now home to the University of Tampa. Modern hotels can accommodate far more guests and provide a much more comfortable stay, but you won't be able to cast a line from your window and catch your dinner.

Rodney Kite-Powell is the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He encourages your questions and comments and can be reached by email at and by phone at (813) 228-0097.
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