During the 1880’s, Henry Bradley Plant was building an empire of railroads, steamships and hotels. He wanted that empire to have a palace and that palace was the Tampa Bay Hotel. The hotel was built by Plant personally, not investors, at a cost of $2,500,000 and an additional $500,000 for furnishings. It took two years to build, covered 6 acres and was 1/4 mile long. Its 511 rooms were among the first in Florida to be completely electric. Advertised as completely fire proof, the building contained poured concrete reinforced with rails and cables in between floors. The building had all of the latest luxuries including a billiard room, barbershop, shoeshine service, beauty shop, flower shop, telegraph office, formal dining room, Grand Salon, Music Room with orchestra, and telephones in all guest rooms.
When Henry B. Plant brought the railroad to Tampa in 1884, he opened the door for many businesses to flourish. The railroad was at the center of the city's economy. From downtown, it ran to Port Tampa City where one could board a Plant Line steamship to Mobile, Alabama, Jamaica, Cuba, or Bermuda. Investors were leery of building a hotel of the magnitude Plant envisioned, so Plant decided he would build it himself. The Tampa Bay Hotel cost approximately $2,500,000 to build and $500,000 to furnish. Advertised as absolutely fireproof, due to the steel rails for reinforcement and concrete construction, it consisted of 511 rooms. Some accommodations were suites of three to seven rooms that provided a degree of luxury never before seen in Tampa. Most of the rooms had private baths and all had electricity and telephones. Guests and luggage traveled between the five floors in two of Florida’s first passenger and freight elevators. Guests reveled in this atmosphere of heady opulence, surrounded by exotic furnishings, porcelains, Venetian mirrors, and sculptures handpicked in Europe by Mr. and Mrs. Plant. The décor was a collection demonstrating such exquisite taste that one writer described it as
a jewel casket into which has been gathered an infinite number of gems.
Open from December to April throughout the 1890s, the Hotel was a lively place with magnificent balls, tea parties, and organized hunts during the winter social season. Guests enjoyed an array of diversions, including wild game hunting, fresh and salt-water fishing, sailing, rowing, and canoeing. Bicycles and carriages were at their disposal. Rickshaws were available for tours of the property or an afternoon ride to see and be seen. The Hotel also boasted a golf course, tennis and shuffleboard courts, billiards, croquet, and even a racetrack. The Music Room hosted grand balls and orchestra concerts during the week. The Tampa Bay Casino seated 2,000 people and billed national and international performers such as Nellie Melba, Sarah Bernhardt, John Philip Sousa, and Anna Pavlova. The Casino also served as a spa with a heated indoor swimming pool located below the removable floorboards to reveal a relaxing oasis. The Grand Salon, or parlor, was a place of inspiration filled with European statues and Venetian-style mirrors. In 1892 The New York Times writer, William Drysdale commented that,
gentlemen of the pen who can write a column or two about a snow-capped mountain peak and go into ten-page ecstasies over a sunrise should stand in the middle of the Tampa Bay Hotel parlor and let their immaculate English flow unrestrained.
A sweeping veranda on the east side of the Hotel afforded guests with a tranquil setting from which to enjoy the view of the Hotel’s extensive gardens. Following a formal eight-course dinner of fine wine and haute cuisine in the Dining Room, guests could stroll along the serpentine walks that wove through an exotic landscape of tropical flora and garden statuary. The Flower House, filled with rare plants from all parts of the world, was one of three charming conservatories on the grounds.
The grounds of the Hotel were just as awe-inspiring as the building itself, spanning 150 acres. The amenities included an 18-hole golf course, flower conservatory, tennis courts, a croquet greensward, boathouse, hunting and fishing grounds, stables, racetrack, kennels, exposition hall with Florida products on view, Casino with a 2000-seat auditorium, heated swimming pool, bowling alley, spa facilities and card rooms -- totaling 21 buildings in all.