TAMPA — Stepping past a chain-link fence around the construction site, Mayor Bob Buckhorn said, "I feel like an expectant father."
No surprise there. If there's anything that's his baby, it's the transformation under way at Tampa's majestic but long-empty old federal courthouse.
Wednesday, Buckhorn walked through the 109-year-old building for the first time since work started about 10 months ago.
Many of the features that put the courthouse on the National Register of Historic Places remain — the soaring ceilings, tall windows, oak woodwork, terrazzo floors and green-on-white marble wainscoting.
What's coming is a 130-room boutique hotel — and one of the most ambitious historic renovations Tampa has ever seen.
What used to be offices and judges' chambers are being converted into hotel guest rooms with 10- to 12-foot ceilings. Even old prisoner holding cells will be reconfigured and expanded into guest rooms.
The front lawn will have tables for outdoor dining, a granite wall that once enclosed a prisoner arrival sally port will provide privacy for a swimming pool, and an imposing ceremonial courtroom will someday host other important events.
"This is a great courtroom," Buckhorn said.
"It's going to be a great ballroom," said his guide, Gary Prosterman, the owner and principal of Development Services Group of Memphis, the lead company for the redevelopment team.
Pointing across the street to the massive stained glass window at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, he said, "Many wedding receptions will just come right from the church, right upstairs."
The project budget is about $25 million, 135 to 140 workers are on site on any given day and surprises have been minimal.
The new hotel, Le Meridien, is expected to open on N Florida Avenue around June 1. Le Meridien is expected to have a staff of about 100 and nightly room rates ranging up to about $290 in-season and $160 out of season. One wall will feature works by local artists.
Completed in 1905, the courthouse boasts a beaux-arts design and neoclassical elements, including three-story Corinthian columns flanking the front door. It was closed 16 years ago and was deeded to the city five years after that. Since then, it has sat vacant, though the city had to spend almost $100,000 a year on air conditioning just to keep down the mold.
In 2011, after several unsuccessful tries to find a new tenant, the city sought bids from developers interested in converting the courthouse into a high-end hotel. Five responded. Unlike some other bidders, DSG did not seek any city funding for its project. It also had the track record Buckhorn wanted: It had done 25 similar projects in 16 cities.
At the end of Wednesday's tour, Buckhorn said the project is shaping up to be "everything that I hoped it would be."
"It's one of these buildings that you had to do," said Mark House, managing director for the Florida division of the Beck Group, construction manager for the project. "I mean, we had to do that. If we missed this opportunity …"
Buckhorn finished the thought: "Shame on us."
Richard Danielson can be reached at (813) 226-3403, [email protected] or @Danielson_Times on Twitter.