Palaces & Perfectos

Tampa's grand buildings and lively old cigar district keep Florida's traditions glowing


October 19, 2003|By Hal Smith | Hal Smith,Special to the Sun

Until a few years ago, I never imagined I'd enjoy a trip to Florida. I thought all it had to offer is a Mickey Mouse amusement park, kitschy roadside attractions, shopping malls and flirtations with skin cancer.

I was wrong.

Tampa has got it mostly right, particularly for those of us drawn to cities that allow their roots to show.

Tampa, located on the Gulf Coast, has its upscale shopping districts, aquarium, major league sports, the largest performing-arts complex south of Washington, and a 21,000-seat ice arena that doubles as one of the highest-grossing pop-concert venues in the country. But to really understand Tampa's story and what makes it different from dozens of other thriving cities, take a look at what has escaped the wrecking ball.

Start at the fabulous Tampa Bay Hotel, which tycoon Henry Plant built in 1891 at the end of his railroad system, a patchwork of bankrupt lines he purchased but never renamed after the Civil War. The Depression finished off the Tampa Bay as an operating hotel in 1930 but, as a National Historic Landmark, it remains the only "railroad resort hotel museum" in the country.

In its heyday, it was filled with 41 boxcar loads of European and Oriental art and antique furnishings bought during a yearlong shopping trip by Plant and his wife, making it one of the most plush hotels built in the Gilded Age. It had to be -- there was nothing else to bring visitors to Tampa, then an outback village of fewer than 1,000 people.

Today, Tampa is the third largest city in Florida, with more than 300,000 residents. Together with its sister cities, St. Petersburg and Clearwater, it forms a metropolis called Tampa Bay, home to about 3 million people on the central Gulf Coast.

While St. Pete has bragging rights to several baseball spring training camps and some of the best beaches in the state, the city of Tampa is the bay area's commercial and industrial center -- and the home of the Buccaneers, winners of the 2003 Super Bowl.

Named for the state's largest open-water estuary, shared by the three cities, Tampa is the largest port in the southeast, serving cargo ships as well as a rapidly growing number of cruise ship passengers. But the waterfront is also emerging as a regional arts, shopping and recreation center. That trend dates from the turn of the 20th century, when Plant improved the port for his steamships.

He also spent nearly $3 million to create his Victorian showplace, doing for the Gulf Coast of Florida what Henry Flagler did for the Atlantic Coast and what other railroad tycoons would do for the Adirondacks, Catskills and Rockies. The North's social elite would become the state's first "snowbirds" and the vanguard of a new tourist industry.

Through Plant's friendship with Thomas Edison, the hotel was one of the first all-electric hotels in the state and the first to have an elevator. Its guests had phones and steam heat in every room, and were shuttled through exotic gardens on rickshaws. A single room (one of 511), plus meals, cost $5 a day at a time when dinner at a restaurant cost a working man 5 cents. Today, a $5 donation buys only the right to look around.

Aside from the hotel's enormous size - it's a quarter-mile long - the most striking feature is the Moorish Revival style, particularly its gleaming silver minarets, which have become an iconic symbol of Tampa. Seen from Interstate 275, the minarets, whose domes have been covered in stainless steel to replace the original tin, are the most arresting feature of the city's skyline.

The hotel has survived through adaptive reuse as the campus of the University of Tampa. The Henry B. Plant Museum preserves one wing of the hotel as it was at the turn of the century. Peek into the Grand Salon, where guests gossiped and watched others arrive by train, or the dining room, where 500 Victorians lingered for hours over their eight-course meals.

The hotel must have looked like a mirage to the 30,000 troops who arrived in Tampa in 1898 aboard Plant's trains on the eve of the Spanish-American War.

While a small number of off-season guests amused themselves at Plant's 150-acre resort, the top Army brass set up headquarters there and filled the hotel to capacity.

The conflict is sometimes called "the rocking chair war" because the troops drilled for weeks in the summer, dressed in wool uniforms, as war correspondents and officers sat in rocking chairs on the hotel's wide veranda, drinking Cuba libres (rum and Coke), a drink invented to popularize the war.

Cigar center

Plant's investments in Tampa proved to be farsighted. Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, an influential cigar manufacturer and Cuban immigrant, relocated his business from Key West to Tampa after the railroad came to town. That move, which other cigar makers emulated, would soon make Tampa the cigar-making capital of the world.

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