After spending some time in the Florida Aquarium, one of the world’s top five aquariums, I took a stroll along the city’s Riverwalk and discovered one of the top five benches in the world. From there, it was an easy stroll over the Hillsborough River to gape at the city’s most beautiful building before returning to downtown Tampa to see other examples of the city’s finest structures. These are my favorites.
#1 Old Tampa Bay Hotel
Decked halls transformed the Henry B. Plant Museum into a festive holiday destination, but that was the extra cherry on an already rich fruitcake. I was here to see the building itself, more than the museum, although that proved equally fascinating. The spectacular Tampa Bay Hotel was built in 1891 as a 511-room luxury resort for Gilded Age tourists by railroad magnate Plant, one of eight that rose under his direction, and one that personally cost him $2.5 million to construct, with another half million thrown in for furnishings. I stood before this magnificent structure that stretches a quarter of a mile. The exotic Moorish Revival architecture features a long front porch with gingerbread trim and horseshoe arches, complicated brickwork, windows of all different shapes and sizes, six minarets, four cupolas, and three domes, all capped with stainless steel. I tried to imagine its guests, which included Teddy Roosevelt, Babe Ruth, Sarah Bernhardt, Clara Barton, and Stephen Crane, promenading up and down the porch, or around what remains of the hotel’s original 150 acres of grounds that included 20 other buildings, a golf course, race track, casino, bowling alley, fishing and hunting grounds, and kennels. Occupied by the Army as its headquarters during the Spanish-American War, the hotel offered its guests luxuries rarely seen before. Its still-running elevator is one of the oldest continuously operative elevators in the United States, and its rooms, which could swell up to seven-room suites, were the first in Florida to offer electric lights and telephones. Unfortunately for those who could afford this dizzying opulence, the Great Depression cut short the hotel’s life, and it closed in 1932. Now part of the University of Tampa, the former hotel serves a dual purpose as university offices and the museum, which traces the history of the hotel in rooms maintaining original furnishings and artifacts — everything from ornate mirror frames to canopy beds — that transport you back to a very glamorous time.
#2 Sacred Heart Catholic Church
The white limousine pulled up in front of Sacred Heart Catholic Church just as I arrived. This wonderful Romanesque structure, now wedged against a boring and banal office tower / parking garage, was one of the key buildings I wanted to see in downtown Tampa, and it didn’t disappoint. Having celebrated its 100th birthday in 2005, Sacred Heart is one of the oldest churches in Tampa. Replacing the original wooden church in 1905, the current granite and marble building, which cost $300,000 to construct, features a trio of arched entrances, an impressive rose window, and a dome reaching up 135’. Before I became an unintended wedding crasher, I hurried inside to take a look around before the bride and groom showed up. I quickly decided that the soon-to-be Mr. and Mrs. had chosen an excellent setting for their nuptials. From the solid oak pews and doors, to the porcelain tiles, to the Carrara marble altar, to the murals of the Four Evangelists in the pendentives of the dome, to the huge organ, this church boasts a spectacular interior. The arches and the columns, both short and tall, with highly detailed capitals, strike particularly beautiful notes. Masterfully sculpted Stations of the Cross line the walls between some of the church’s 70 stained-glass windows. Designed by the famed Munich company Franz Mayer & Co., the windows include St. Patrick preaching (with an unusual twist: his garments are red, not green) and the Resurrection Window, a triptych with, in the central panel, Jesus floating over His tomb, carrying a heavenly banner and raising His hand in a benediction, flanked on one side by a panel depicting the Virgin Mary, the not-so-virgin Mary Magdalene, and Martha, and on the other by a panel portraying two soldiers fleeing from the opening tomb. After a century of care under the Jesuits, the Franciscans assumed responsibilities for the church and parish, and I have no doubt that this church will continue to shine for brides and grooms, and out-of-state visitors, for the next century.
#3 Old Federal Courthouse
Directly across the street from Sacred Heart, framed by palm trees and facing another monstrous office building, the Old Federal Courthouse has led a triple life. The prolific architect James Knox Taylor, who designed hundreds of public buildings, created a stunning building with three-story fluted Corinthian columns at the top of a formidable set of stairs. The Beaux Arts–style building of granite and terra cotta brick, topped at the roofline with a long row of dentils and balustrades, conveys a sense of stability, which seems to waver under its history. Originally designed for the United States Post Office in 1905, it took on a second purpose when it also started serving as a courthouse and a customhouse (for the city’s cigar industry), eventually serving solely as a courthouse. When the judicial offices moved out, the building remained abandoned for years, boarded up, leaking, and growing mold. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the revitalized building is now in its third incarnation, as a Le Méridien hotel that has done a remarkable job of preserving the building’s history. Terrazzo marble floors were retained, the main ceremonial courtroom has been converted into a ballroom, and the old holding cells transformed into 130 guest rooms (without the bars). The judge’s bench in the fourth-floor courtroom is now the business center desk in the lobby. Paddy wagons arriving with criminal defendants would pull up at what is now the deck space of the outdoor swimming pool. Taylor’s blueprints for the building’s lighting structures have been replicated in the wallpaper. A witness stand has been repurposed into the hostess stand at the hotel’s restaurant, and while you are waiting for your table, you can take a seat on the old juror’s bench.
#4 Exchange National Bank
About a block away from Sacred Heart, the old Exchange National Bank presents a different kind of temple, one serving matters of the wallet rather than the soul. And, like the Old Federal Courthouse, it has morphed into something different from its original purpose. Completed in 1923, this fine example of neoclassicism is marked by its clean lines, fluted columns, and, on the side, fluted pilasters capped by paterae and a quintet of different medallions above the soaring ground-floor windows. Greek key belts flank the engraved EXCHANGE NATIONAL BANK in the frieze, below the egg-and-dart band above it and the leaf-and-dart band below. The October 28, 1923, issue of the Tampa Tribune reported its opening in glowing terms as “one of the most handsome banking houses in Florida” with an “attractively furnished reception room for ladies.” The Exchange lasted under its original name until 1979, when a long series of mergers and acquisitions began and forever changed it. Eventually, the limestone building was closed and abandoned, but it has since been resurrected as an events space that has restored the splendid interior spaces, including the original marble floors, the 35’-tall ceiling with medallion ornamentations, and a second-floor mezzanine that overlooks the open gallery.
#5 Tampa Theatre
The massive TAMPA vertical blade sign and the glowing marquee attracted my attention to the Tampa Theatre. One of the great architectural anchors of downtown Tampa, the theater has been an almost-always viable presence since it opened in 1926. As the first commercial building in the city to offer air conditioning, this movie palace started packing in audiences right from the start. I admired the Mediterranean-style flourishes directly above the canopy and at the top, about nine stories up, in the asymmetrical towers with lovely balconies. Even at the entrance, this theater was meant to impress, what with its ornate box and the golden ceiling above it. But it was not immune to changing trends in American society, and after three decades of success, the Tampa suffered from the rise of television and a hemorrhaging downtown as people fled to the suburbs and patronage plummeted in the 1950s and 1960s. By 1973, the Tampa was faced with the threat of demolition, but motivated citizens rallied to its defense, formed committees, and saved it from the wrecking ball. Since then, the theater has seen multiple restoration projects, earning a National Register of Historic Places listing in 1978 as well as Tampa City Landmark status and membership in the League of Historic American Theatres. To see the results of those efforts, attend an event, see a film, or catch a live performance here (although you’ll have to pay more than the 25 cents that it would have cost originally to buy a ticket); past performers include dozens and dozens of A-list artists, including the Greg Allman Band, Blondie, Ray Charles, Elvis Costello, Genesis, Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, B.B. King, John Legend, The Police, Iggy Pop, the Ramones, and Third Eye Blind. Inside, you’ll step into an opulent space that made the Tampa the jewel in the city’s cultural landscape crown. The main stage re-creates a romantic Mediterranean courtyard with elaborate stage architecture, statuary, and urns. Above it, a nighttime sky twinkles with stars amid the floating clouds. The hallways are filled with fantastic floors, figurehead brackets, and carved doors. Replications of four original tapestries now hang in the lobby, and carpet designed to match the original was installed. Even the entrances to the restrooms are lavish. Before every nightly film, volunteer organists play the 1,400-pipe Mighty Wurlitzer Theatre Organ for those assembled in the 1,238-seat theater. Installed in 1926 to accompany silent films, the organ was sold to a Baptist church in the 1930s when the “talkies” arrived, but it was reacquired by the theater in the 1980s and reinstalled in its original home, yet another notable achievement in one of Tampa’s largest restoration projects in history.
- Floridan Hotel (1926)
- City Hall (1915)
- S.H. Kress and Co. Building (1928)
- Tampa Union Station (1912)
- Tampa Convention Center (1990)
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