TAMPA — A local businessman is turning a 100-year-old downtown building into what he hopes will become an iconic destination for future generations.
Blake Casper next month plans to open the Oxford Exchange along Kennedy Boulevard across from the University of Tampa.
It will combine a bookstore, coffee shop, teahouse, restaurant, home decor store and private office suites.
Project manager James Brearley described it as Casper's way of giving back to the community in a tangible, lasting way. The Caspers Co. owns 52 McDonald's restaurants in the area.
"We're trying to build something that will be relevant for 100 years,'' Brearley said. "We want this to be a place for every aspect of the community. We want everyone who comes into the Exchange to feel like it's special.''
The Tampa Bay Times got an early peek at the project, which is close to complete. Casper is using marble, wood, bronze and brick throughout to create a timeless, architectural showpiece. He has deferred all comments about the project to his staff and has not released the cost.
Casper bought the building in January 2011 for $1.15 million from Stoel Rentals Ltd., whose Stoeltzing family owned several nearby buildings, including the Bryn-Alan Studio. For years, the building was used as a yearbook photo studio. More recently, it has been vacant.
The Oxford Exchange is not designated as historic but has deep roots.
Contractors believe it may have served as the stable for the former Tampa Bay Hotel, now UT's Plant Hall, based on horseshoes and farm equipment found on the site. Discarded milk and whiskey bottles date to companies in business prior to 1900.
Casper named it Oxford Exchange because he liked the sound of it and he attended the London School of Economics, Brearley said.
Crews preserved as much of the original building as possible, including the original white sand blocks that had been covered in black glue and plaster made with horse hair.
Some of the white oak floor was made from shelving planks once used for storing barrels of bourbon in Kentucky.
"Authentic materials were used throughout. We didn't cheap-down or faux anything,'' said general contractor Casey Ellison of EWI Construction. "Our mantra was, 'If they did it like this 100 years ago, you should do it this way with this building.' ''
The main entrance of the more than 25,000-square-foot building will front on Grand Central.
All the retail will be on the first floor; the membership-only Commerce Club will be on the second. Parking, which is limited on the street, will be available in private parking lots leased by the Oxford Exchange.
Casper brought in specialists to run the different departments. Buddy Brew Coffee will operate the coffee shop; Abigail St. Clair of Te Bella on Davis Islands will work the tea stand. Erin Guggino, who worked on the menus at Water sushi and Mad Dogs and Englishmen, will act as executive chef of the 90-seat restaurant, which will serve breakfast and lunch.
The Oxford Exchange will be open from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays and from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Saturdays. It will be open to private parties at night and closed on Sundays.
It's set to open in mid September but will likely be available for events during the Republican National Convention.
The management intentionally decided not to open prior to the convention to avoid any appearances of a political slant.