BY LENNIE BENNETT
Times Art Critic
The Tampa Bay Hotel must have been a wondrous place back in the day. Railroad magnate Henry B. Plant opened it on the shores of the Hillsborough River in 1891 at a cost of $3 million. Some estimates put that amount as equivalent to about $40 million today.
"Strolling in a Perfect Paradise," a new exhibition opening Friday at the Henry B. Plant Museum, shows us in part why.
The museum is housed in a wing of the old hotel, now part of the University of Tampa, that sprawls across 6 acres and stretches a quarter-mile in length. Its Moorish revival architecture was (and remains) magnificent and quirky with metal minarets, domes and cupolas spiking the skyline and delicate gingerbread icing the facade.
Plant developed a 150-acre pleasure park around it that included a golf course, stables, racetrack and hunting ground. He installed a garden brimming with orange trees, banana and pineapple plants, palms, ferns and flowers to create a lush backdrop.
Today, most of that area is taken up by newer college buildings, but 4.5 acres of it are still dedicated to parkland in front of the hotel and sloping down to the river. "Strolling in a Perfect Paradise" brings back the glorious tropical setting Plant created for his guests with vintage photographs, postcards such as those shown here, newspaper articles, garden items such as benches and a tableau featuring models in period clothes. Some of the photographs are projected on a gallery wall in a continuous loop, giving you the feeling you're in the middle of a stroll.
A brochure will also guide you around the garden sites that remain and have been restored by the volunteer group Friends of Plant Park, which has also provided signs with large reproductions of some of the postcard images to mark the spots.
Yes, it's hot right now and not optimum for outdoor activity. Happily, the show continues through December, and beginning in September (mark your calendars) master gardeners will give tours.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.