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University of Tampa's Plant Hall gets a new look

For more than a century, the University of Tampa's Plant Hall _ originally the grand Tampa Bay Hotel _ has served as a symbol of the city. But even the strongest and most elaborate structures need cosmetic surgery every so often.

One wing of the immense building, which is now home to the Henry B. Plant Museum, is getting a little help from one of the country's leading architectural historians.

William Seale is an authority on the preservation and restoration of historic buildings. In 25 years, he has helped restore such famous structures as the Old State Capitol in Tallahassee, the Ohio Senate Building and the Michigan State Capitol. He is visiting Tampa this weekend to advise museum officials how to preserve the original wallpaper and mahogany and cypress trim in the national historic landmark.

"We couldn't have done this even 20 years ago, because no one knew how," said Seale, who travels to consulting jobs all over the country from his Virginia home.

"I'm just here to bring in a fresh eye and give ideas from my experiences. They have already done a lot of the research, but restoration is a humanist idea, so if your ideas aren't sound, the approach won't be either," Seale said.

The Tampa Bay Hotel was built by Henry Plant in 1891, shortly after the railroad came through town. The resort hotel, which was open until 1930, was visited by Teddy Roosevelt and Babe Ruth. Museum officials want to recreate the 1891 look so visitors can experience the way things were back then.

"We think of the building as the most important exhibit we have in Tampa because it represents the lifestyle of the times," said museum director Cynthia Gandee. "Because the museum is so important, any restoration has to be done very carefully. That's why we brought in someone of William Seale's national renown. He's a larger-than-life authority on the preservation and restoration of old buildings."

The 20 rooms of the museum have endured much wear but little preservation during the last century. Many years ago, the blue and red wallpaper with gold flecks and the warm-toned woodwork was covered with varnish, which has since turned black. Museum officials hope Seale will guide them in restoring one room as a prototype so they can preserve other rooms in the future.

"The older a building gets, the more important it gets," said Seale, who became interested in architectural history after staying in southern plantations and ranch houses as a young boy. "We live in a very visual age where the public gobbles up history. And you can get a lot more history to a lot more people through sites such as the museum."

Seale has also taught history classes and worked in several museums. From his experiences, he has obtained information to write books on topics such as American interiors and the White House. He will be speaking about "The Lives of the White House" at 2 p.m. Sunday on the second floor of the Merl Kelce Library on the University of Tampa campus.