Henry Bradley Plant spent the 1880s building up a network of railroad and steamship lines that both terminated in Tampa, then a sleepy and sparsely populated fishing village prone to yellow fever epidemics. To bolster this inauspicious nexus of his transportation empire, he built one of the most magnificent hotels in Victorian America: the Tampa Bay Hotel, which today houses the Henry B. Plant Museum and University of Tampa.
Opened in 1891, the Tampa Bay Hotel was the crown jewel in the so-called Plant System, which included trains that rolled into Tampa from wealthy Northern locales, as well as steamers that departed Tampa Bay for Cuba, Jamaica, Bermuda, and Mobile. The hotel was designed to appeal to the well-traveled holiday makers of the age and represented the height of opulence. The Moorish Revival building sprawled over six acres and fully outfitted with contemporary extravagances like electricity, telephones, and Florida’s first elevators. The project was so ambitious that Plant was unable to secure investor funding, instead spending $3 million of his own money on the construction and furnishing of the hotel.
The hotel was decorated with luxury items personally collected by Mr. and Mrs. Plant from Europe and Asia. The grounds spread over 150 acres, and included a Grand Salon, a Music Room with regular live performances, a Dining Room with lavish formal dinners, extensive gardens, a golf course, tennis courts, hunting and fishing facilities, a heated swimming pool, a spa, a bowling alley, stables, a race track, and a 2000-seat casino.
Outside of a stint as a base of military operations during the Spanish-American War that brought international significance, the Tampa Bay Hotel hosted guests from December to April until the Great Depression forced its closure in 1930. By then owned by the city, the hotel became the home of the Tampa Bay Junior College in 1933 (becoming the University of Tampa soon thereafter), with the south wing being preserved as the Tampa Municipal Museum to showcase the history of the building and the intertwined story of the city.
In 1974, the Tampa Municipal Museum became the Henry B. Plant Museum, which seeks to provide a faithful interpretation of the hotel in its heyday, as well as the general environment of late Victorian tourism and concurrent early days of Tampa. The exhibits primarily consist of original furnishings and artifacts that filled the hotel when it began welcoming Florida’s first vacationers and snowbirds.