TAMPA — Silver minarets topped with gold crescent moons rise like a mirage, shimmering against the city skyline. Sweeping verandas accented with gingerbread-trimmed balconies wrap around the sprawling red-brick building. Bordered by office towers and municipal buildings, the Henry B. Plant Museum recalls the country’s Gilded Age and the extraordinary life of the railroad magnate who put Tampa on the map.
The museum is housed in the 1891 Tampa Bay Hotel, a Victorian palace that features Moorish revival architecture, opulent European furniture, and art treasures of the original railroad resort. Exhibits in the meticulously restored national historic landmark transport visitors to the late Victorian period, the beginnings of Florida’s tourist industry, and the early years of the city.
The Grand Hall, illuminated by 1891 Edison carbon filament lighting, runs the length of the first floor. The distinctive keyhole doors at each end were designed to let in as much light as possible. Ornately framed mirrors expand the red-carpeted space, lined with cabinetry, candelabras, and bronze busts of Queen Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots.
Plant hired German landscape architect Anton Fiehe to create the lavish grounds, and he brought in 70 varieties of exotic fruits and flowering plants. The ceramic garden seats displayed in The Garden Room were made in England, Germany, China, and Japan and purchased on the Plants’ buying trips.
The Writing and Reading Room preserves the original inlaid and carved wainscoting, mantel, mirror, window, and door frames. Books, newspapers, inkstands, and magazines of the day are arranged on the tables, and there’s an exhibit on the Spanish-American War and its Tampa connections.
The hotel had 500 rooms, and those on the upper floors were increasingly smaller and less grand. The top floor was reserved for nannies and children. There were 12 pianos on site, and guests who didn’t play could have one wheeled to their room, along with a pianist. For other players, there were a golf course, tennis and shuffleboard courts, billiards, croquet, and a race track.
The Parlor Suite on the first floor was one of the hotel’s most desired accommodations. In one room a carved Victorian double bed is set directly under a minaret to catch cool breezes. Adjacent are a music room and library. Plant and his wife, Margaret, traveled extensively throughout Europe during the construction of the hotel, amassing furniture and artwork for “Plant’s Palace.” They attended the Paris Exposition of 1889 and sent back 41 trainloads of furniture and art.
One room focuses on exhibits representing “Women and Their Pastimes,” such as tea in the garden, needlepoint, reading, quiet conversation, or a relaxing stroll along the Palm Walk on the banks of the Hillsborough River. The floor covering in this room is original to the Tampa Bay Hotel.
We especially liked the placards placed throughout the museum stating the rules of proper Victorian behavior, such as these: “It is a mark of low breeding to fidget either with the hands or feet or to fuss with a collar” and “None but a low-bred clown will ever carry bon-bons away from the table.”
HENRY B. PLANT MUSEUM
401 West Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, 813-254-1891, www.plantmuseum.com. Adults $10, seniors and students $7, children ages 4-12 $5.