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What’s the deal with Tampa’s ‘haunted’ Bayshore mansion?

Maybe you recognize the mysterious gray stone home. Here’s the story behind the Biglow-Helms mansion.
A group portrait of hospital staff on the steps of the Biglow-Helms Mansion back when it was the Bayside Hospital in 1920. This photo is from the Burgert Brothers collection.
A group portrait of hospital staff on the steps of the Biglow-Helms Mansion back when it was the Bayside Hospital in 1920. This photo is from the Burgert Brothers collection. [ Courtesy, Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System. ]
Published Oct. 11, 2019|Updated Oct. 14, 2019

It’s stood on Bayshore Boulevard for over a century, but the Biglow-Helms mansion is still shrouded in mystery.

There are the old black and white photos of nurses lined up along the stairs. Rumors of hauntings and shadowy figures. Questions about what happened during the years where it sat empty and abandoned.

Here’s the story behind the grand old home.

A Burgert Brothers photo shows the Bayside Hospital at its old location at 4800 Bayshore Boulevard, south of Maryland Avenue.
A Burgert Brothers photo shows the Bayside Hospital at its old location at 4800 Bayshore Boulevard, south of Maryland Avenue. [ Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library ]

Silas Leland Biglow came to Tampa from Brooklyn in the 1884 and became one of the first city councilmen. He built the mansion in 1908 on a 1.9-acre lot at the corner of Gandy and Bayshore boulevards.

Biglow died in 1917. Two years later, his widow sold the mansion to Dr. John Sullivan Helms.

A wealthy Tampa surgeon, Helms transformed the residence into the Bayside Hospital. It was the first private hospital in west Florida.

A clip from the June 4, 1926 issue of the Tampa Times shows student nurses at the Bayside Hospital.
A clip from the June 4, 1926 issue of the Tampa Times shows student nurses at the Bayside Hospital. [ Newspapers.com ]

“It was up high and away from the congestion of the city, where people could rest," said Del Acosta, an architectural historian in Tampa.

The hospital was the birthplace of a number of prominent Tampa residents, from Ruth Eckerd (wife of drug store mogul Jack Eckerd) to Tampa Tribune sports columnist Tom McEwen. The infants born there were called Biglow Babies.

Underneath the first floor was once a morgue, said Tampa historian Rodney Kite-Powell.

Group portrait from the Burgert Brothers collection of staff on steps of Bayside Hospital in 1920.
Group portrait from the Burgert Brothers collection of staff on steps of Bayside Hospital in 1920. [ Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library ]

The Bayside Hospital was phased out after Tampa Municipal Hospital (later known as Tampa General Hospital) opened on Davis Islands. The property was sold and again became a private residence. This time, it was also an artist studio.

Jack Wilson, Helms’ nephew, lived in the home after the physician died. Wilson lived on the second floor, where he painted well-known Tampa figures and created medical illustrations. He is said to have died in his studio.

Over the next two decades, new plans for the house came and went. Though there were proposals to transform the building into something else — condos, a restaurant, a cultural center — but none came to fruition.

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The Biglow-Helms house was one of several large homes that sat vacant on Bayshore around that time.

“The bay in the 60s and 70s were really polluted, so it smelled really bad," Kite-Powell said. “Hyde Park had become a less desirable place to live”

Meanwhile, the vacant property fell further into disrepair. Kids used to break in during the mid-80s. Kite-Powell even snuck inside a few times when he was growing up. Inside the gray stone mansion, he found trash, birds and paintings of pentagrams.

When the building was finally sold to a Swiss family in 1988, the new owners were horrified with what they found.

Gobs of melted candle wax and blood smeared on the walls suggested sinister rituals. Satanic symbols had been graffitied throughout the mansion.

The house was to be renovated and designated as a historic property. But first, a priest came and blessed it.

According to Kite-Powell, the were no notable tragedies in the home other than deaths of the residents and hospital patients.

But a USF associate English professor named Flora Zbar told the Tribune that visitors heard the cries of babies and had “a feeling of being watched” after the hospital years.

“Shadowy figures, creaking staircases, strange noises and babies’ cries haunt the Biglow-Helms mansion,” the Tribune reported in 1994.

The mansion today

The exterior of the Biglow-Helms mansion, which now houses a medical spa.
The exterior of the Biglow-Helms mansion, which now houses a medical spa. [ Courtesy of Faces of South Tampa. ]

The Biglow-Helms mansion was lifted and moved up further on the property after it was renovated in the early 1990s. Apartments were built where it used to stand.

The home was renovated. People rented the rooms for office space. At one point, it was a banquet hall.

For the past decade, it has housed a medical spa called Faces of South Tampa.

Faces of Tampa owner Michael Puleo and his wife, Jennifer, bought the property a decade ago, first working out of the 1,000-square foot carriage house behind the main building before expanding their business throughout the mansion.

“It’s kind of neat that it started its roots as the first hospital in Tampa, and we’re a medical facility," Puleo said.

The Puleos kept the original wood floor and paneling. They documented the building’s past with displays of historic photos.

“We have people who come from time to time to tell us how we were married there, or that their great grandmother was born there," Puleo said.

Puleo gets asked about ghosts from time to time, but the century-old building feels “vibrant and lively” to him.

“If it is haunted, the spirits that are there are very happy,” he said.

This is what the Biglow-Helms mansion currently looks like inside.
This is what the Biglow-Helms mansion currently looks like inside. [ Courtesy of Faces of South Tampa. ]

What other old buildings do you want to know more about? Let us know in the comments.

This report was compiled using Times archives.

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