Downtown Tampa's Plant Park is home to the oldest piece of public art in the city, pre-Civil War cannons, and a 112-foot flagpole, one of the tallest in Tampa Bay.
The Lowry Park Zoo also found its beginnings here. In 1891, guests of the Tampa Bay Hotel (now the University of Tampa) could hunt wild hogs roaming the landscape or pause during a stroll to visit the resident bear. A collection of exotic animals on the property was later moved upriver to Lowry Park's current location.
Pat Kaye is keenly aware of Plant Park's rich — and sometimes quirky — history. She and other members of the Friends of Plant Park raise money for maintenance of the century-old foliage and restoration projects in hopes of returning the garden to its 1891 roots. The nonprofit organization is behind the replica flagpole standing almost as tall as the former hotel's crescent-topped minarets. The pole's American flag holds only 45 stars — the number of states during the time of the Spanish American War, when Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders lodged on the property.
But even as the group works to turn back the clock by replicating the park's original look, its members are intent on keeping up with technology and the modern visitor.
The group used a recent grant from Hillsborough County Historic Preservation Challenge to design a cellphone audio tour so just about anyone visiting the park can easily learn its history for free. Kaye, the group's long-range planning coordinator, hopes this kind of accessibility will attract more residents and tourists to enjoy the landscape and learn a few of the many intriguing facts about the park.
"There are so many opportunities to enjoy this park," Kaye said. "And it's beginning to be so much more of what it was originally meant to be — the center of the community."
To listen to the guided tour, visitors call the phone number on the sign at the entrance of the park. The tour does not commence in any particular order; rather, the visitor chooses the order and pace by dialing whichever number corresponds to the site they come across first.
A person entering the park at the left might first see Exhibit 4, the statue Transportation. Pressing 4# will prompt the recorded guide to explain how Margaret Plant commissioned the statue in memory of her late husband, Henry B. Plant, the railroad magnate behind the hotel and its grounds. This statue is the work believed to be the oldest piece of public art in Tampa.
There are 11 exhibits throughout the park where guests can enter the site numbers on their phones for more detail. Pressing 12# will also tell listeners a brief history of Henry B. Plant's life. The tour concludes with 13#.
Local radio personality Jack Harris volunteered his time and talent to the recording and is the voice behind much of the narrated tour. Michael Norton, local performer and owner of Norton Interactive Entertainment, volunteered to be the voice of Theodore Roosevelt, a character he has played professionally many times. Appellate judge Emiliano Jose Salcines is producing a Spanish version of the tour.
A scannable QR code at the entrance of the park also allows visitors to quickly find the Friends of Plant Park website and view a postcard tour, which includes text alongside historical photos and drawings. The audio tour is also available on the website.
Kaye says Friends of Plant Park is encouraged by the response it has had from visitors who have taken the tour.
"It's really exciting," she said. "People are using this park as I'm sure they thought it would be used 100 years from the time they built the hotel."
Sarah Gottlieb can be reached at [email protected]