TAMPA — The minarets say Tampa and have ever since 1891, when railroad baron Henry B. Plant opened his luxurious Tampa Bay Hotel on the shores of the Hillsborough River.
The University of Tampa occupies most of what is now called Plant Hall, but the first floor is preserved as the Henry B. Plant Museum. The rooms remain furnished as they were when Theodore Roosevelt stayed there on his way to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American war.
Other artifacts on display include the baseball that Babe Ruth slammed in 1919 in what is said to be his longest home run ever — 587 feet — from Tampa’s Plant Field. The ball was signed by Ruth and Boston Red Sox manager Ed Barrow.
And in an exhibit that runs through December, visitors can see Frederic Remington’s sketchbook of scenes at the Tampa Bay Hotel, where he stayed as a war correspondent.
Lindsay Huban, 38, interim director of the museum, said Henry Plant wanted an exotic-looking building, something people would feel like they just had to go into. To this day, the minarets are still a lure.
“We get people every day coming to the museum (saying) ‘I just had to see what this building was,’” she said.
Why did Henry Plant build the Tampa Bay Hotel?
The state of Florida had land grant programs at the time where you were granted land in exchange for building railroads connecting cities. So Henry Plant ended up owning just huge amounts of land throughout the state. …
In Tampa, he wanted an area where he could build the rail line in and then develop a port. … (He) built the rail line into town. So, you could come to Tampa but where were you going to stay and what were you going to do?So he built two hotels in Tampa, the Inn at Port Tampa and the Tampa Bay Hotel, the building that we’re in today. And that really transformed the city. We went from 800 residents to 15,000 residents in a very short period of time. This hotel opened in 1891; it ran as a hotel for 40 years. ... This is the only one of Plant’s hotels that is still standing. He had eight hotels throughout the state. The rest either were burned down, torn down or destroyed in hurricanes.
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What was life like at the Tampa Bay Hotel?
Well, if you were a guest here at the hotel you could do pretty much anything you wanted to. There was hunting, fishing. There was a racetrack, baseball grounds, acres and acres of gardens. And this was the first building in the state to be completely electrified. It had all of the best technological advances, including telephones in every room. So you were really living in the lap of luxury if you were a guest here at the hotel.
You say that the connection to the Spanish-American War put the hotel and Tampa on the map.
Henry Plant sent his lieutenant, Franklin Q. Brown, to D.C. to lobby for all troops to come through Tampa going to Cuba. So then we had 30,000 people coming to town, riding Henry Plant’s trains so that the officers could stay in Henry Plant’s hotels and everybody could get on Henry Plant’s steamships and go to Cuba. It worked out very well.
Teddy Roosevelt stayed at the hotel. Did Winston Churchill stay as a war correspondent?
One of Churchill’s business cards was in the hotel papers, so there is evidence that Churchill stayed here. But war correspondents like Frederic Remington, Stephen Crane, Richard Harding Davis, those were the gentlemen that were staying here at the hotel.
How did the minarets come about?
The architect was a man named J.A. Wood. Henry Plant knew him and said, I want a building that’s going to look exotic, that people are going to remember, that people are going to have to go into when they see this building. ... Shining silver domes are going to reflect the sunlight. You can build bonfires in the evening and they’ll reflect the light.
What was Plant like?
We know that Henry Plant valued hard work, that he was an incredibly hard worker and that he valued his employees. Some research that we discovered is that Henry Plant offered all of his employees health insurance in the 1880s and ‘90s. That’s just incredible. When he learned that African-American employees in Waycross, Ga. were having trouble finding affordable housing, he bought land to build houses for them. So he was doing what he could to make sure that his employees were well taken care of.
He had hospital train cars… when they were building train lines, which was incredibly dangerous work, and men were maimed and killed with some frequency. He had hospital train cars (at) the end of the line so that there was a hospital available so that injuries could be taken care of right on the spot and you weren’t waiting days to get to a doctor.
Was Plant born to wealth?
No. Henry Plant worked his way up from the bottom. He was born in Branford, Conn. His father passed away when he was very young and his mother moved him to New York. He got a job with the Adams Express Company, a steamship company, when he was a teenager and worked his way up from cabin boy all the way to the top. … The Adams Express Company split into two. Henry Plant was made president of the Southern Express Company and that’s how he was able to get enough capital to buy railroads after the war and build himself an empire.
Is the museum’s furniture the original hotel furniture?
Most of what we have in the collection is the original furniture in the original location, which is just amazing. Most history museums, you’re going to see either authentic pieces in exhibit cases or you’re going to see replicas in original spaces. We have original pieces in the original spaces.
I love that we have black and white photos scattered around the museum so that you can see what this room looked like in 1895 and you can see that it looks the same today. We have the same furniture, the same paintings hanging on the same walls.
Henry and Margaret Plant went on a buying trip to Europe before the hotel opened and came back with 40 train cars full of stuff.
Henry B. Plant Museum
Where: 401 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa
Hours: Closed Mondays; open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; open noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Check for holiday hours.