Tampa's Historic Boom Era Hotels
From the beginning, the Tampa Bay area has been about railroads, the tourists who arrived on those trains and the hotels that welcomed them.
“Hotels and real estate sales went hand in hand,” says Will Michaels, past president and board member of St. Petersburg Preservation Inc.
After World War I, many tourists flocked to St. Petersburg and had to live in tent cities. They earned the nickname “Tin Can Tourists” because they cooked their food in tin cans over campfires.
Boarding houses and small hotels weren't enough, developers decided. It was the Roaring '20s, a time of luxury and prosperity, and how better to respond to tourists who wanted to enjoy a winter of warmth and relaxation than to build fantasy hotels to welcome them and try to sell them a piece of Florida land of their very own?
That is the legacy of the Boom Era in Florida. Long before Walt Disney envisioned a Magic Kingdom or Cinderella's Castle, hustling developers designed lavish hotels reminiscent of European castles, many in a style that came to be known as Mediterranean Revival, drawing on the richly ornate designs of Spanish and Italian architecture.
Today these hotels stand as legacies of a bygone era of grandeur. That Gilded Age is gone, but we can visit them and imagine what it was like when guests dressed for dinner every night and enjoyed unlimited leisure. Come take a look, stop by for a visit and enjoy Tampa Bay's unique history.
The Vinoy Renaissance Resort & Golf Club
501 Fifth Ave. NE, St. Petersburg
The Vinoy Renaissance Resort reigns as the undisputed grande dame of the waterfront in downtown St. Petersburg. The hotel opened on New Year's Eve 1925 as the Vinoy Park Hotel, a glamorous retreat for the rich and famous of the day, drawing Babe Ruth, Alf Landon, the Pillsburys of flour legend, the Fleischmanns of margarine fame, the Smiths of Smith-Corona.
Guests stayed for weeks or the entire winter season in the beautiful Mediterranean Revival hotel, named for a fictitious Arab prince. They strolled the tile floors, admired the hand-stenciled pecky cypress beams, and swayed to the music of Paul Whiteman in the ballroom.
In later years, the hotel was the setting for the rites of passage of St. Petersburg: debutante balls, wedding receptions, charity events. In the 1970s, the hotel declined and sat for years, a vacant eyesore. In 1992, after a $93 million renovation, the hotel reopened and became part of Marriott's Renaissance hotel group, earning four diamonds from AAA. The cypress beams are back, the original tile floor is still there, and the wood, stone and ironwork trim of yesteryear has been restored to its original beauty.
This is where locals go for a lavish Sunday brunch, wedding receptions, fundraisers and major social events. More casually, it's a great place to relax in a wicker chair on the veranda for a drink while you gaze at the downtown skyline and the boat slips. Some think the lobby bar makes the best margarita in town.
Loews Don CeSar Hotel
3400 Gulf Blvd., St. Pete Beach
Everybody knows "the Don"; we even give directions based on it: "Head toward the Don and turn left (or right) on Gulf Boulevard ..." The big pink Don CeSar (say "Say-zar"; it's named after the hero of an English opera) was built in 1928, modeled after the Royal Hawaiian in Waikiki Beach, at a time when Hawaii was an exotic port of call.
Like the Vinoy Renaissance, it hosted the rich and the reckless of the Jazz Age. F. Scott Fitzgerald of The Great Gatsby fame stayed there, and so did Al Capone. During World War II, it was a convalescent center for troops. Later it became a Veterans Affairs regional office.
Starting in the 1970s, it underwent several major renovations and became a Loews hotel with pools, gardens, restaurants and great views (there's nothing but the Gulf between you and Mexico). This is the romantic spot where Tampa Bay residents go for weekend getaways, marriage proposals, weddings and big celebrations. You can stand where Robert De Niro stood when Once Upon a Time in America was filmed here.
Plant Hall/The Henry B. Plant Museum
401 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa
It was exotic when it opened in 1891, and it's exotic now. It's a five-story hotel in the Moorish Revival style topped with six minarets, four cupolas and three domes. Almost as astounding is the elaborate white-painted wood fretwork that contrasts with the dark brick exterior walls. Now, more than a century later, the onion domes are the signature of the Tampa skyline.
The 511-room Tampa Bay Hotel was furnished with objects brought back by Henry and Margaret Plant from their European travels. The hotel had the first elevator in Florida and was the first hotel with telephones and electric lights. (The period lighting in the museum wing uses Thomas Edison's carbon filament bulbs.) Teddy Roosevelt swaggered here before leading the invasion of Cuba in the Spanish-American War; Stephen Crane and Babe Ruth stayed here, too.
Guests could tour its 150 acres in rickshaws. In the 1930s, the hotel became the home of the private University of Tampa and is now the university's Plant Hall. The museum wing displays the original lavish furnishings, fixtures and accessories of the original hotel.
Today the spaces are used as academic, office and performing spaces where "we've tried to keep true to the period with paint colors the same as what they were," UT spokesman Eric Cardenas said. Dance students, for example, perform in what is now Fletcher Lounge, but in the hotel's heyday was a domed two-story ballroom and banquet hall where musicians played from an overhead catwalk.
The Grand Salon, once the hotel's main lobby and socializing space, is now a gathering and performance space for the university that is also rented out for weddings and other events.