While planning a girls' getaway to Tampa, Florida, I suggested to the gals that we visit the Henry B. Plant Museum, a former Gilded Age hotel restored to its 1891 glory. I was surprised, however, when the friend who shares my predilection for costume dramas and period novels sounded less than thrilled about the idea. With its grand architecture, vintage furnishings and rare glimpse into a posh hotel of the period, it sounded right up her alley. I wondered why her response was unethused.
Then I went back and read the text I had sent:
"We should go to the Plant Museum! I've always wanted to see it."
That explained it -- she thought we were going to spend our girl's getaway looking at slides of fern spores and cross-sections of geraniums.
A quick call to clarify brought her right around, and we met outside the silver-minareted turrets of the sprawling brick building. Before we entered, we all took some time to look in awe at the incredibly intricate, white-painted woodwork of the Moorish horseshoe arches lining the sweeping, high-ceilinged veranda.
Once inside, we collected wands for the audiotour, which would explain what we'd see in each room as well as the types of outsized characters who stayed at the hotel in its heyday. Catering to the upper echelons of society, who stayed not for a week but for the entire winter, the hotel brought in the top notch entertainment of the day, from Anna Pavlova to John Philip Sousa.
Roaming the rooms of the hotel (now part of the University of Tampa, with classrooms, offices and meeting spaces), we saw a guest room restored to its original appearance, a guest's private music room, the sunlit writing and reading room and several rooms that were chockablock with collections of furnishings and decorations collected for the hotel during Henry Plant's travels. A railroad baron, Plant built the Tampa Bay Hotel at the southern end of his line, in a Florida that was still very much the frontier. From there, guests could also connect by steamship to Cuba, Jamaica, New Orleans and even Bermuda. The tone of the hotel took a more somber turn in 1898, when it became Army headquarters for the Spanish-American War. Plant died the following year, and the city of Tampa took ownership of the hotel. It's been a museum since 1933.
The museum occupies one wing of the grand old building, but a helpful docent explained that we could walk through the rest of the building as long as we didn't disturb any ongoing classes or events. She suggested heading down to the opposite end to take in the soaring rotunda of the dining hall, so we took her advice, and weren't disappointed. We even climbed up to the velvet-draped balconies that ring the rotunda, where orchestras would entertain the posh set as they dined.
You won't find diners in furs and finery here today, but they years haven't dulled the grandeur of this Gilded Age beauty.
Share and discuss this story with your friends
Alisson is a freelance writer and journalism teacher based in Florida. Her first trip out of the country was to the Bahamas at age five, where she told everyone who would listen that she was from another country. No one was impressed, but the trip did leave a lasting impression of the transformative power of travel. Her writing appears in National Geographic Traveler, the St. Petersburg Times and mental_floss as well as newspapers, magazines and web sites in the U.S., Canada and Australia.
Located: Gainesville USA
Likes: outdoors, family travel, Florida, off the beaten path