Guest Post: What's So Grand about Grand Central
September 30 2015

The name Grand Central Avenue once represented a roadway that connected downtown Tampa to the city’s western suburbs past Howard Avenue, at which point the street name changed to Memorial Highway.  The three mile stretch of Memorial Highway and most of Grand Central, along with Lafayette Street, became John F. Kennedy Boulevard in early 1964 following the November 1963 assassination of President Kennedy.

A small segment of Grand Central, just south of where Lafayette (Kennedy) runs at a diagonal on the west side of the Hillsborough River, retained its name and, more importantly, some of its historic identity.  Commercial buildings, some built for that purpose and others converted to that use, plus two houses of worship are among the structures that contribute to the historical landscape.

Grand Central Avenue is part of the oldest section of Hyde Park, one of Tampa’s oldest suburbs.  Hyde Park was one of the original four wards of the City of Tampa when it was re-incorporated in 1887.  However, the neighborhood is much older than that date implies.  A fishing rancho that came to be known as Spanishtown was established on a creek with the same name in the late 1700s.  By 1824, when Fort Brooke was started on the east side of the river, a small family settled on the west side.

The Coller family, led by 33-year-old Levi and his wife Nancy Dixon, were the first Anglo American settlers in the region.  His daughter Nancy married Robert Jackson in 1836 and he homesteaded 160 acres on what became known as Jackson Point which fronted on the Hillsborough River and Hillsborough Bay and included land currently occupied by Publix, a condominium tower, and the Tampa Tribune.

By the 1850s several families had joined the Jacksons on the west side of the river.  Jesse Carter’s family settled on the land that would later be home to the University of Tampa but sold it to Jesse Hayden for a cart and a white horse in the 1860s (a deal that Carter thought he got the better of).  James and Alice Kelly owned the property west of today’s Boulevard and south of Kennedy; and in 1879 George P. Washington and his wife Louanna purchased 79.88 acres described as tract five in section 24, township 28 south, range 18 east.

Life was fairly simple in Tampa during this time.  The families on the west side of the river worked the same kind of jobs as those on the east side.  Washington served as a sailor, and his sons Charles, Ira, and Philip all eventually became ship captains.  Robert Jackson, a former assistant surgeon with the army, died in 1865 and Nancy eventually was able to claim her husband’s land as her own.  James Kelly was a farmer, and their neighbor Louis Bell was a brick mason.  Most property owners in the area held at least a half a section (80 acres).

Tampa experienced an incredible boom in the 1880s.  The doldrums of post-Civil War life had changed almost overnight.  Henry Plant’s railroad (1883), the beginning of the phosphate industry (1884) and the start of the cigar industry (1886) brought unprecedented prosperity to the area.  People began moving to Tampa by the hundreds, and owners of large tracts of land began to see it as more valuable when covered with houses instead of orange groves and vegetable farms.

In February 1886, O. H. Platt subdivided 20 acres of Nancy Jackson’s property that he had purchased several months earlier and established the first subdivision on the west side of the river, naming it Hyde Park for his hometown outside of Chicago.  Six months later, Washington subdivided the northern half of his property just to the west of Platt’s Hyde Park.  He named the subdivision, along with one of the east-west roads, after himself.  He gave the street on the subdivision’s northern boundary a grander name – Grand Central.

Washington’s subdivision consisted of eight streets.  The east-west roads, starting at the north, were Grand Central, Washington (changed to Cleveland in 1887), and Platt Street; running north-south from the eastern boundary are Sixth (Cedar), Seventh (Magnolia), Eighth (Fielding), Ninth (Brevard), and Tenth (Boulevard).  Single family homes began to dot the landscape, first joining the existing farmhouses and then, by the early 1900s, completely replacing them.

Other pioneer families began to divide their properties as well.  Alice Kelly’s subdivision, just to the west of Washington’s, was established in May 1890, Nancy Jackson sold a section of her land to the Whitakers and divided a small section of her own near the river just south of Lafayette.  Jesse Hayden sold a portion of the land he acquired from Jesse Carter to Henry Plant for his Tampa Bay Hotel and subdivided the rest in March 1891.  Hayden’s subdivision stretched from the north side of Grand Central Avenue north to North E Street, roughly today’s Carmen Street, and from the river to Boulevard.

The streetscape along Lafayette and Grand Central began to turn from wood-frame homes to brick business buildings.  The First Baptist Church moved across the river to Hyde Park, settling in on the east side of Plant Avenue at Lafayette before building their current church on the west side of Plant in 1923.  Just to the southwest, the First Church of Christ Scientist opened its doors on Grand Central and Cedar the same year.

By 1925, a collection of buildings were constructed on Hyde Park Avenue between Lafayette and Grand Central that housed real estate offices, a Western Union Telegraph office, and a restaurant.  The wedge-shaped plot between Lafayette and Grand Central was also soon bustling with office buildings, including the Hensley-Stovall Arcade in the middle of the block and the Lafayette Arcade on the western end.  The tapering effect of the block is reflected in the architecture of the Lafayette Arcade building, which resembles the famed Flat Iron Building in New York City.

The Tarr Furniture Company built a seven-story stone and brick building on the east side of Hyde Park Avenue and Lafayette in 1927.  The last historic building on the Grand Central/Lafayette block west of Hyde Park Avenue is the Falk Theater, originally built as the Park Theater in 1928.  The Park Theater was named for its proximity to Plant Park just across Lafayette Street.  Designed by Tampa architect B. C. Bonfoey, the moving picture theater opened in November 1928.  One of the features that was touted by the Tampa Tribune was the “large balcony with extra ventilation facilities to permit spectators to smoke.

Today, most long-time Tampa residents remember this block as the place they had to go to get their high school pictures taken (Bryn-Alan Studios at 502 Grand Central) or have a great meal (Mise en Place).  A variety of other businesses, including Oxford Exchange, call Grand Central Avenue and the adjacent areas home.  Three historic homes from Hyde Park’s early years, 502 Grand Central and 110 and 112 Magnolia, add to the historic nature of the area.

Development and new construction will most certainly change the look of the area.  Gone are the days where empty lots are being filled with single-family homes and two- and three-story commercial buildings.  Though those days are gone, they most certainly should not be forgotten.  The historical fabric still exists to recall those days, and whatever building project (or projects) that join them have an impressive past to live up to.

 Author: Rodney Kite-Powell | Photo Courtesy of Hillsborough County Public Library

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