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$30 million later, old Tampa armory to reopen as Jewish Community Center

The state of the art Bryan Glazer Family JCC Fitness Center features the area's most comprehensive fitness equipment along with indoor track, yoga, spin, pilates and group exercise classes.  [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
The state of the art Bryan Glazer Family JCC Fitness Center features the area's most comprehensive fitness equipment along with indoor track, yoga, spin, pilates and group exercise classes. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published Dec. 6, 2016

TAMPA — The day the Fort Homer W. Hesterly Armory was dedicated in 1941 was overshadowed by a nation's outrage and grief.

Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor the day before. The new armory opened as Tampa's 116th Field Artillery marshaled for war.

"Grim," the Tampa Morning Tribune said, noting the "serious civilian crowd."

On Thursday, 75 years to the day later, the old building will be rededicated, though under much different circumstances.

The Tampa Jewish Community Centers & Federation will celebrate a $30 million renovation to transform the long-vacant armory into what one executive called "a YMCA on steroids."

The 110,000-square-foot facility will be known as the Bryan Glazer Family JCC, in honor of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers co-chairman, who committed $4 million to the project.

The new center is at 522 N Howard Ave., south of Interstate 275 in West Tampa — an area starting to see serious new investment after a decadeslong wait.

"We are just thrilled that we are not only able to restore history, but also to be a catalyst moving forward," JCC executive director Jack Ross said Monday.

"We have hundreds of class-A apartments being built in the area (and) a cigar factory to the north being developed into a boutique hotel," he said. "It's a community coming alive."

The state Legislature and Gov. Rick Scott put more than $7 million into the effort. Hillsborough County contributed $1.3 million.

It is a project nearly five years in the making.

The armory had been vacant since 2004, with various groups floating ideas to use it as a film studio, ice rink, hotel or outpatient clinic for veterans.

In January 2012, the JCC announced it would sign a 99-year lease for the property. A year later, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

• • •

The completed community center keeps much of the armory's original Art Deco design, but with an angular modern entrance hall added to its north side.

"We tried to preserve the history of the armory as much as we can," said David Scher, the JCC's lay chairman for the project.

The product of a public-private partnership, the building is bifurcated into a public side and a secured-access side for people who pay a membership fee to belong to the center.

On the public side, the Roberta M. Golding Center for the Visual Arts will be run by the city of Tampa, with classes shaped by the Tampa Museum of Art.

The center replaces the city's cramped and battered Hyde Park Art Studio with 8,000 feet of workspace, including 14 ceramics kilns and studios for jewelry-making, mixed-media and glasswork.

It will be open to all, center administrators say.

The public side also includes an event space that can seat 550 for dinner and 1,000 for films or theater.

Outside, the center can put up a tent to accommodate 770 more.

A million dollars of the state's money went to help create the Florida-Israel Business Accelerator, which is designed to attract Israeli companies to expand their operations into the U.S. with Tampa as their headquarters.

Administrators are evaluating the first group of applicants, which do business in areas that include educational technology, cybersecurity, food and health care technologies.

Down the hall, Tampa Jewish Family Services will offer social services, including a food bank and crisis counseling.

"We are trying to be relevant to people across the spectrum, Jewish and non-Jewish alike," Ross said.

• • •

On the secure, members-only side, there's a gym with a hardwood floor and an elevated indoor track.

There are studios for Pilates, spin classes and yoga. There's a fitness center with a huge complement of treadmills, aerobic equipment and weights.

Outside, the Diane and Leon Mezrah Family Aquatic Center includes a 25-yard heated, eight-lane competition pool and a smaller heated therapy pool. The smaller pool can be covered with a surface to create a dance floor and event space.

Along with its fitness facilities, the center also has an indoor-outdoor cafe and will screen movies, offer classes and host a range of cultural and educational programs.

Memberships cost from about $48 a month for youth and seniors up to $159 a month for families. The center will open with 2,500 members.

• • •

And all this is just the latest chapter for a place that already had an improbably rich history.

In 1898, Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders camped on the property, once known as Benjamin Field, before embarking for Cuba during the Spanish-American War.

In 1961, 4,200 people waited out a bomb threat to hear the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Two years later, President John F. Kennedy spoke to a crowd of 5,000 just four days before he was gunned down in Dallas.

In 1956, more than 10,000 fans paid $1.50 to see Elvis Pres­ley. Other headliners included Buddy Holly, James Brown, B.B. King, Tom Jones, the Doors, Pink Floyd, the Allman Brothers and the Ramones.

Then there were the boxing matches, the roller derbies, the cotillions, the exotic bird shows and the spectacle of professional wrestling.

It's so much that the JCC plans to install a wall of photos honoring the kaleidoscope of celebrity that has passed through its doors.

It also has preserved the original armory's seal and motto, which was rendered in maroon, white and cadet blue terrazzo.

The motto — in Latin, Vestigia nulla retrorsum — was cited by a visiting general on the day after Pearl Harbor as a prophecy for the 116th Field Artillery.

Today, it sums up the forward momentum the place has now.

Its meaning: "Never a step backward."