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Plant Hall an architectural icon, a jewel topping a city

Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 01:37 AM

EDITOR'S NOTE: Your RNC host city is a cultural melting pot with a rich history, delectable cuisine, postcard scenery and military muscle. Today: Plant Hall.

Driving into the city from Tampa International Airport or from parts east, the silver minarets atop the old Tampa Bay Hotel sparkle in the Florida sunshine; architectural jewels from a bygone era, luring visitors to come and stay a while.

They were Henry B. Plant's way of rewarding those pioneers willing to ride his train from the big cities of the northeast into the humid climes of Central Florida back when the territory was mostly untraveled.

This week, Plant Hall, as the old hotel is now known, is again helping welcome visitors to Tampa, with about 50,000 people in town for the Republican National Convention.

"It is the premiere architectural icon of the city of Tampa," said Cynthia Gandee, executive director of the Henry B. Plant Museum, which is housed in Plant Hall. "We've used that phrase many times. I can't imagine any group of this size coming to Tampa and not showcasing this marvelous building. It's just a step back into the 1890s."

The building was completed in 1891 as a 511-room winter resort for those who dared trade their posh vacation spots elsewhere for a sleepy fishing village Plant and his railroad would help transform into a bustling city.

Visitors driving down West Kennedy Boulevard can get a glimpse of the building's iconic silver spires and exotic architecture, wedged along the shoreline of the Hillsborough River.

This Moorish Revival structure, designed by John A. Wood, is on the U.S. National Historic Landmark list.

It has six minarets, four cupolas and three domes, surrounded by ornate Victorian architectural ornamentation, known as "gingerbread."

The towers were all restored in the early 1990s using stainless steel to replicate the original silver-painted metal.

Today, the former resort is used for classrooms and office space for the private University of Tampa, which leases it from the city for $1 a year.

In the hotel's heyday, this massive five-story building hosted Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, French stage and early film actress Sarah Bernhart, American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, the Queen of England and many other celebrities, according to the museum's brochure.

Babe Ruth signed his first baseball contract in the hotel's lobby — the entranceway to grand balls, tea parties and organized hunts in the late 1800s.

When it opened, the building was one of the few places in Tampa that had electricity or elevators, according to Gandee.

The ornate passenger elevator, which is still running for special occasions these days, has carved Cuban mahogany and pressed leather in the ceiling.

A fleet of rickshaws that once hauled guests from one end of the incredibly long building to the other and around its grounds are in the museum.

Since 1933, Plant Hall has not only been the home for the University of Tampa but also for the Henry B. Plant Museum, where Gandee presides over the history of the Gilded Age and Plant's contributions to Tampa and the surrounding region.

A self-guided audio tour of the building, at 401 W. Kennedy Blvd., and its authentically restored rooms is available through the museum and is included with the entry fee, which is $10 for adults, $7 for seniors and $5 for all students, Tuesday through Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sunday, from noon to 5 p.m.

On a normal day, there is parking right in front of the museum. On busy days, guests can park at the Thomas Parking Garage and walk two blocks to the museum. (813) 259-7127