The stainless steel minarets that flank the University of Tampa campus stand out against the city’s skyline. The tops end in crescent moons, a whimsical contrast to layered skyscrapers.
When Stephanie Carlos, 75, learned of the Tampa Bay Times’ new Florida Wonders series, the towers were her first thought.
“I’m kind of closing my eyes and picturing Tampa, and it just popped in my mind, the minarets,” she said. “And I thought, well, okay, there’s a question.”
Carlos recently joined the Times on a tour of the university’s distinctive Plant Hall, a building that was once the area’s most elegant resort.
The former hotel now holds administrative offices and classrooms and takes its name from the hotel’s developer, Henry Plant, a tycoon who extended railroad lines deep into Florida in the late 1800s.
The minarets and the building they stand on are iconic reminders of a glorious past and a signature for a city being transformed yet again.
“When you think Tampa, you think minarets.”
So says Lindsay Huban of the Henry B. Plant Museum.
Huban, the museum’s membership and operations manager, points to prominent images in the community as evidence. Here is the University of Tampa’s black-and-white sketched insignia, an architectural rendering of Plant Hall placed above the school’s name.
Another is the Bank of Tampa’s logo, which depicts the classic minarets in gold. The minarets were actually painted gold in 1981 for UT’s 50th anniversary.
The fact that the minarets are used even now as a symbol of the city shows just how far Henry Plant’s empire reached. When he extended his railroad line to Tampa in 1884, only about 700 people lived in the area.
By the time of Plant’s death in 1899, he had amassed a railroad and steamship system, Huban said, that stretched from Prince Edward Island in Canada to Puerto Rico and Honduras. He built eight hotels in Florida, including locations in Winter Park and Punta Gorda. But the Tampa Bay Hotel, with its minarets, gingerbread woodwork and four grand parlor suites, was his crown jewel.
“This is the only one that is still standing,” Huban said. “This was the biggest and best one.”
Plant initially fell in love with the state in the 1850s when he brought his first wife, Ellen, to recover from tuberculosis. In that pre-Civil War era, the trip was lengthy: Traveling to Jacksonville often meant taking a train, going on a horse-drawn carriage and ending the journey in a canoe.
At the time, Huban said, the state had a land grant program that gave developers acres in exchange for train track laid within certain areas. Plant’s roughly 60 miles of track earned him a significant amount of land.
With the Tampa Bay Hotel, Plant envisioned a place that would serve as a community center for visitors and residents of Tampa. His hotel would eventually house the city’s first performing arts center, a race track and the best restaurant in town.
For the design, Plant wanted something “exotic,” Huban said.
Architect J.A. Wood designed the resort with an eye toward a Moorish Byzantine style popular during the Victorian period.
The red-brick building, a quarter of a mile long, was the first in the state to completely use electricity, earning it the description of a place where “you can read a book any time of day.”
The price for a room started at $5 a night, a stat that led to a laugh from Carlos. But that was about two weeks’ pay for a hotel employee, who would have earned about 40 to 60 cents per day.
The hotel remained open only for about 40 years, from 1891 to 1932. It was only fully occupied in 1898, the start of the Spanish-American War. It was then that about 30,000 troops came to Tampa and staged at the hotel before journeying to Cuba to fight the war. The hotel welcomed Theodore Roosevelt, before he became president, and American Red Cross founder Clara Barton. Those guests helped the structure earn its designation as a National Historic Landmark.
After Plant died, his family began selling off parts of his property. In 1905, the city of Tampa bought the Tampa Bay Hotel and its 125 surrounding acres for $125,000, a fraction of the $2.5 million it cost Plant to build the structure.
The city ran the hotel until 1932, then it proposed that the recently founded university lease the building and preserve part of it as a museum.
Since the transition from a hotel to a university, the minarets have experienced their own growing pains.
In the late 1980s, it was discovered that the minarets had sustained fairly extensive termite damage to their wooden frames. All of Plant Hall was fumigated. Old photos show the building draped in a striped tent.
The minarets are rarely, if ever, open to the public. Those affiliated with the university can see them up close on certain occasions, like alumni or family weekends. The structures span five stories, making up half of the building’s height.
“I think it’s definitely a badge of honor if students have been in a minaret,” said Monnie Wertz, an assistant vice president at the university.
Visit on a random weekday, even during the summer, and you’ll find students bustling in and out of Plant Hall, sitting on its plush, leather chairs. The hall is home to the school’s science wing.
Students are proud of Plant Hall, Wertz said, as a symbol of the city and because it’s so unique.
“Most people when they’re going off to college aren’t sitting in classrooms that used to be someone’s bedroom or have a fireplace in them,” Wertz said.
As Carlos walked through the well-preserved writing and reading room, with its wood-paneled desks and copies of letters written from the hotel, she envisioned a relative.
“My uncle’s aunt would have been just the lady around here,” Carlos said. “She was a school teacher, and I could just see her around all this stuff.”
By the end of our interview, Carlos still hadn’t had her question answered. But that’s partially because it’s unanswerable.
When she asked Huban what the minarets represent, her response was direct and succinct.
“Just decor?” Carlos asked.
“It’s just decor,” Huban said.
Huban gets that question all the time. In fact, she said, it’s the most common question the museum hears — every single day.
The answer is so simple, it’s almost disappointing.
“There’s no secret meaning behind it,” she told us as we stared at the minarets shining against the blue sky.
“It was just something that looked different, something that would catch your attention, and it works now, 130 years later.”
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