Old Custom House; Preparing tortillas.
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Tampa Bay Hotel

Tampa, Florida

Tampa Bay Hotel

Tampa Bay Hotel
Courtesy of the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory

A National Historic Landmark in Tampa, Florida, the Tampa Bay Hotel is not only a stunning example of Moorish and Turkish architecture, it also served as the headquarters for the United State Army’s invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Constructed between 1888 and 1891 by Henry B. Plant to draw tourists to Florida, the massive hotel and its expansive grounds proved extremely useful during the Spanish-American War.

Henry B. Plant, railroad magnate, successful businessman, and founder of the Plant System of railroads and steamboats, brought the railroad to Tampa in 1884. Plant’s railroad connected downtown Tampa to the rest of the east coast and to Port Tampa, where people could board a Plant steamship to Havana, Jamaica, New Orleans, New York, Bermuda, or other destinations.

With the arrival of Plant’s railroad and steamships in Tampa, new businesses and markets burgeoned. The fishing industry prospered, new products filtered into Tampa’s market, and Tampa’s tourist industry began. Newly founded Ybor City (also featured in this itinerary), an area of Tampa that quickly developed into one of the cigar manufacturing centers of the world, benefited from using Plant’s trains to ship fine Cuban cigars to the rest of the U.S. market. Plant’s trains and steamships forever changed the sleepy village of Tampa, Florida and brought it fast into the 20th century.

To encourage tourists to visit Florida, Plant built hotels in strategic locations along his Floridian rail lines. Tampa Bay Hotel was the premiere hotel in his chain of resorts, and it is symbolic as the first pioneering effort in the Florida resort business. Built between 1888 and 1891, the Tampa Bay Hotel cost over $2 million to construct and nearly $500,000 to furnish. The completed hotel was 900 feet long, five stories high, and contained over 500 rooms. Most the rooms had their own baths and all had electricity and telephones – amenities that were considered quite a luxury at the time. The hotel had a formal dining room, Grand Salon, Music Room with an orchestra, barbershop, beauty shop, writing and reading room, and a telegraph office. Designed in the style of a Moorish palace, the enormous, irregularly shaped red brick building features turrets, domes, and minarets. While the hotel itself was intended to evoke mysterious faraway places, Plant’s Orientalist furnishings and European antiques created an exceptional atmosphere and added to any visitor’s experience.

Officers of the Spanish-American War at the Tampa Bay hotel, 1898

Officers of the Spanish-American War at the Tampa Bay hotel, 1898
Courtesy of  the Florida Memory Project

The hotel sat on 150 manicured acres. On the grounds, guests could enjoy a golf course, tennis and shuffleboard courts, billiards, a casino (with a 2,000 seat auditorium), a race track, a flower conservatory, stables, and places for wild game hunting, fresh and salt-water fishing, sailing, rowing, and canoeing. The hotel operated from 1891 until 1932, and received many well-known guests and visitors including Babe Ruth, William Jennings Bryan, and Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova. The hotel housed some of its most significant guests in 1898 during the Spanish-American War.

The Spanish-American War was an armed conflict fought over a ten week period between Spain and the United States in Cuba and throughout Spain’s Pacific possessions. American business interests and support for Cuban independence from Spain led to the United State’s involvement in this conflict. On February 15, 1898 when the USS Maine, on a “friendly” mission to Cuba, mysteriously blew up in Havana harbor, a Spanish mine was blamed (this is still debated today). The sinking of the battleship enraged the American public, which was already in an anti-Spain frenzy whipped up by the yellow journalists of the day. Loss of the Maine gave the United States a final reason to go to war.

President McKinley issued a declaration of war against Spain on April 25, 1898 and shortly thereafter, the United States added the Teller Amendment asserting that after the war the United States would grant Cuba independence. The Teller Amendment provided a way for the United States to justify its actions while attempting to dispel fears that the country had imperialistic motives for going to war.

The U.S. government chose Tampa as the official port of embarkation for American forces heading to Cuba because of its geographical location, deepwater port, and connection to Henry B. Plant – with his railroad line, his ships, his lobbying and connections to the War Department, and his massive Tampa Bay Hotel. Colonel Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were among the 30,000 soldiers who arrived in Tampa by the late spring of 1898. The US military set up seven army camps in the Tampa area and made the Tampa Bay Hotel headquarters for the Army officers planning the war campaign and awaiting the order to ship out. The hotel also became the gathering place for news correspondents, socialites, mercenaries, and various foreign military observers. Other notable guests included Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, who arrived at the hotel to organize hospital facilities, and former Freedmen’s Bureau chief Oliver O. Howard, who came to minister to spiritual needs.

The Tampa Bay Hotel became the hub of war preparation activity. With a train that came right up to its west side, troops, officers, and officials constantly came and went. The train took them to the Port of Tampa, only nine miles away, to handle cargo and supplies. Inside the luxurious hotel, the generals planned their war campaign, often in the “Writing & Reading” room, which visitors can see today. In the “Writing & Reading” room, the men and other guests caught up on the daily news, read newspapers, wrote letters, and read correspondence that focused mainly on the progress leading up to the war and the coming invasion of Cuba. In this room, Colonel Teddy Roosevelt talked about military strategy with the other generals staying at the hotel.

Spanish-American War Camp, Tampa, Florida

Spanish-American War Camp, Tampa, Florida
Courtesy of the Florida Memory Project

On the hotel grounds, with views of the army camps' many tents off in the distance, Colonel Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders ran training drills on their horses. Even with the whirlwind of activity and training, officials initially simply waited for word from Washington to invade. The Spanish-American War was sometimes called the “Rocking Chair War” because the members of the military could be seen in rocking chairs on the Tampa Bay Hotel’s veranda discussing strategy, politics, and current events, just waiting for the order to invade Cuba. The hotel provided a comfortable place with plenty of space and accommodations to prepare for the war and wait.

Eventually, the generals received word from Washington to begin the invasion. They transferred troops from the camps and hotel to the Port of Tampa and began transporting them to Cuba, some on Henry Plant’s steamships. The war only lasted 10 weeks and officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on December 10, 1898. As a result of the war, Spain lost control over the remains of its overseas empire - Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, Guam, and other islands, and the United States emerged as a great power on the world stage of international relations and diplomacy.

The Tampa Bay Hotel continued operating as a hotel until 1932, even after Plant died in 1899, and his heirs sold the hotel and 50 acres of land to the City of Tampa in 1905. In 1933, the City signed a lease with the University of Tampa giving the university the right to use the building for 100 years at the cost of one dollar a year. Today, a portion of the building and its grounds serve the University of Tampa, while the Henry B. Plant Museum in the south wing of the old hotel building and Plant Park provide visitors the opportunity to experience this historic place.

Plan your visit

Tampa Bay Hotel, a National Historic Landmark, is located at 401 W. Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa, FL. Click here for the National Historic Landmark file: text and photos. The Henry B. Plant Museum and the Museum Store are open to the public. For more information, visit the Henry B. Plant Museum website.

The Tampa Bay Hotel has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.

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