Photo courtesy of Tampa-Hillsborough County Public Library System | Burgert Brothers Collection
Just across the street from Oxford Exchange is the University of Tampa. From the Commerce Club upstairs, one can see the striking Moorish-influenced minarets of the former Tampa Bay Hotel, now known as Plant Hall, one of the main academic buildings at UT; it also houses the Henry B. Plant Museum.
Although it has been an academic building since the 1930s, Plant Hall had a storied former life in the 40 years that it operated as the Tampa Bay Hotel. Here are a few facts you may or may not have known about one of the most recognizable buildings in Tampa:
1. The construction of the Tampa Bay Hotel marked the beginning of Tampa’s history as a tourist destination.
Henry Plant made his fortune in the railroad industry. His Plant System brought the railroad and steamships to Tampa, and in turn connected Tampa to the rest of the east coast via train. In order to draw wealthy northerners down to Tampa (and partially to compete with Henry Flagler’s Hotel Ponce de Leon in St. Augustine, which was wildly popular with that same moneyed set), Plant built the Tampa Bay Hotel. Completed in 1891, it was known as “Plant’s Palace” and considered one of the most opulent hotels of its time. The Tampa Bay Hotel’s construction coincided with the rise of Ybor City as a powerhouse in the cigar industry. Factoring in the new railroad and Plant System steamships operating out of the Port of Tampa, and Tampa saw a new era of economic growth at the onset of the 20th century.
2. The Tampa Bay Hotel cost approximately $2.5 million to build...in 1888.
Henry Plant could not secure the support of his investors to build the luxury hotel he envisioned as the crown jewel in his empire, and so he decided to fund it himself. The hotel cost him approximately $2.5 million to build, and another $500,000 to furnish with unique pieces hand selected by Plant and his wife. In 2015, the grand total Plant spent to create the Tampa Bay Hotel would equal $75 million.
3. Plant Field was one of Major League Baseball’s first Spring Training facilities.
Plant Field was located on the grounds of the Tampa Bay Hotel. From 1913-1916, the Chicago Cubs used Plant Field as their Spring Training grounds. Later, Plant Field became home to the Red Sox during Spring Training. Babe Ruth hit one of his longest home runs there in 1919. Babe Ruth also signed his first professional baseball contract at the Tampa Bay Hotel.
4. The Tampa Bay Hotel was the headquarters of operations during the Spanish-American War
The most well-known piece of trivia from this portion of the Hotel’s history is that Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders were among the military personnel who set up camp at the Tampa Bay Hotel. Another notable guest during this era was Clara Barton, who founded the American Red Cross.
5. Other notable guests who have stayed at the Tampa Bay Hotel: Thomas Edison, Sir Winston Churchill, Booker. T. Washington, and the actress Sarah Bernhardt.
Those interested in learning more about the history of Plant Hall and the Tampa Bay Hotel should check out the Henry B. Plant Museum. It’s a wonderful resource for information on the Hotel, Tampa history during the Gilded Age, and beyond.