By: Wayne Ayers

As seen in Antiques & Art Around Florida, Summer/Fall 2007

Florida during the late 1800s has been called Americaís last frontier.

While much of the nation was experiencing the bloom of Victorian society, the Sunshine State remained a vast tangle of jungle and palmetto scrub, visited mostly by invalids, sportsmen and a few adventurous tourists, appropriately termed "excursionists."

A view of the front walk at the Tampa Bay Hotel ca. 1910

Into this primitive setup stepped two entrepreneurs with gilded age wealth and connections. Each had a vision and the means to carry it out. In the span of a few short years during the latter decade of the 19th Century, Henry M. Flagler and Henry B. Plant would transform the coasts of Florida into a prime "grand tour" destination for societyís rich and famous.

While Henry Flagler worked his magic on the east coast, Henry Plant was building a transportation and accommodations empire on the Gulf side that would rival his more famous counterpart.

The legacy left by Henry Plant includes his Atlantic Coast Line railroad, which remains a vital regional transportation hub, two splendidly restored grand hotels, and an array of related collectible items that beautifully exemplify Floridaís Victorian charm and finery.

Henry Plantís roots in the region stretch back to the Civil War, when the career railroad executive began assembling the transportation network that would extend into Florida during the Reconstruction era.

By 1884, Plantís steamboat and rail lines would converge at the struggling frontier village of Tampa, which Plant chose as the hub of his empire.

Here, Plant constructed what would be his favorite hotel and grandest statement, the Tampa Bay Hotel.

Completed in 1891 at a cost of nearly $3 million, the most expensive hotel in the world was a masterpiece of ornate and fanciful design, even by gilded age standards. The five-story, red brick Moorish "palace" was topped by silvered onion domes and minarets, each bearing a crescent moon representing a month of the Muhammadan year.

The rambling Belleview Biltmore remains the largest occupied wooden structure in the world. The Belleview's Cedar Walk is pictured ca.1920

The entire hotel was lighted inside and out with electricity, considered a rare luxury at the time. Over $1 million was spent to furnish the Tampa Bay Hotelís guest rooms and parlors with antiques and period pieces, many personally selected by Plant and his wife Margaret during their European travels.

Top name entertainers of the day appeared regularly at the hotelís casino, which was billed as "larger than almost any New York theater." When not in use for theatrical productions, the casino floor was rolled back to reveal a 50 foot by 70 foot swimming pool. Concerts were given each morning on the veranda by the hotelís in-house orchestra.

The Tampa Bay Hotel met every expectation of the leisure class for grandeur, comfort, amenities and gilded age splendor. Its financial condition, however, was precarious. Both the hotelís construction and operating costs proved far greater than anticipated.

In 1905, six years after Henry Plantís death and following 14 years of mixed financial returns, Plantís heirs sold the property to the City of Tampa. The selling price was $125,000, a mere fraction of the hotelís construction costs.

Today, Henry Plantís grandest hotel and outlying buildings make up the campus of the University of Tampa, an arrangement in place since 1931. The turreted Moorish Castle shows little change, excepting its adaptation to class space and offices, and the replacement of formally attired Victorian patrons with students ambling along in T-shirts and flip-flops.

Guests enjoy tea in the garden at the Hotel Belleview.

Golf was a main attraction at the Hotel Belleview.

A wing of the building has been preserved to authentically replicate the hotel experience, and visitors can walk the corridors and soak up the splendors of gilded age tourism. Home to the Henry B. Plant Museum, the wing contains a reading room furnished and decorated exactly as it was during the hotelís heydayÖ right down to the news journals on the racks.

Plantís concept for his second grand hotel, The Belleview, would be a dramatic departure from the formal, fantastical red brick palace that he created in Tampa. A secluded site on a bluff overlooking Clearwater Bay near the Gulf of Mexico was personally chosen by Plant as the location of his new property. The Belleviewís style would be relaxed and informal, in keeping with its scenic, remote setting.

The hotel was constructed entirely of wood, specifically Florida heart pine, in the Swiss chalet style coming in vogue internationally at fashionable mountain and seaside resorts. Outdoor pursuits such as golf, bicycling, horseback riding and fishing would be the focal points of activity.

Full advantage was taken of the Belleviewís proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. For years, the hotelís private boat Cola ferried guests across Clearwater Bay to gulf-front property it owned in Belleair Beach. The site was a popular spot for swimming, picnicking and beach parties. The Belleview Biltmore operates the popular Cabana Club restaurant on the property today.

The hotel opened in 1897 as a rustic retreat that nonetheless offered the amenities and luxuries expected by the gilded clientele. Telephone and telegraph services kept guests in touch with family and business concerns. An on-site barbershop handled grooming needs, and the hotelís in-house orchestra entertained guests with daily concerts.

The Belleview proved to be an immediate success, and later additions, including two new wings, would triple its capacity from 134 rooms to 425.

Paper ephemera: An early restaurant menu and brochure from the Belleview, and a rare illustrated brochure of the Tampa Bay Hotel from the 1906-1907 season.

The Tampa Bay Hotel is featured on this Ybor Cigar Box label.

The emerging sport of golf was to play a big role among the Belleviewís attractions. A six-hole course in place when the Belleview opened was Floridaís first hotel golf course.

Henry Plantís son Morton, who took over operations following the patriarchís death in 1899, took steps to ensure the Belleviewís ongoing reputation as a renowned golf resort. In 1915, Morton Plant hired famed golf course designer Donald J. Ross to create two 18-hole championship courses for the hotel. Both links remain in play today.

The Belleviewís gilded guest roster has included presidents, corporate tycoons, international dignitaries, socialites and other patrons who appreciated the hotelís splendid isolation. The Biltmore name was added when the hotel became a part of the chain of upscale hostelries in 1919.

Though the hotel would experience ups and downs through the years, including a bankruptcy filing during the depression era and current demolition threats, the Belleview Biltmore has remained to this day a classic and enduring testament to beauty, style and casual elegance.

A visit to the hotel is a re-entry into a rustic yet plush Victorian seaside resort. Once past the ill-advised modernistic lobby (added by Japanese owners who have now departed), the visitor is greeted by an intriguing wall display of vintage hotel photos and memorabilia. Historic tours of the structure are given daily at 11 a.m. by knowledgeable docents who share fascinating tales of the Plants as well as hotel secrets and curiosities. The tours, which generally last more than an hour, are a steal at $5 each, or $15 including lunch in the hotel dining room.

Cobalt Blue souvenir vase shows the Tampa Bay Hotel

Tampa Bay Hotel souvenir pitcher and tip tray.

The Plant System empire would grow and include hotel properties along Plantís railroad and steamboat routes in Winter Park (The Seminole), Ocala (The Ocala House), Punta Gorda (Hotel Punta Gorda) and later Fort Myers (Fort Myers Hotel). None would achieve the grand status and notoriety accorded Henry and Morton Plantís favorite creations Ė The Tampa Bay Hotel and the Belleview.

Decorative china plates, tip trays, vases and other collectible items depicting the Tampa Bay Hotel are seen fairly often at collectible shows and online auctions. Among the interesting collectibles are colorful and finely detailed cigar box labels featuring the hotelís distinctive profile, which were created in the Cuban cigar capital of nearby Ybor City.

Items depicting the Belleview appear to be almost nonexistent, absent even from the hotelís museum display. Possibly the hotelís isolated location, away from gift or souvenir shops, offered little incentive for production of such items. Paper ephemera, including descriptive brochures and decorated menus from the hotelís celebrated Tiffany Room are more common, as are postcards featuring the rambling structure, grounds and famed golf links.

A finely detailed "charm" depicting the hotel, which was sold at the hotelís gift shop during the 1960s, has been replicated by a local jeweler from the original mold. The item is being sold to benefit preservationists who want to rescue the hotel from possible demolition (

About the author:
R. Wayne Ayers is the author of Floridaís Grand Hotels from the Gilded Age (Arcadia Publishingís Images of America Series, 2005).  Ayers has also authored several Images of America titles related to Tampa Bayís Gulf Beaches and has written a pictorial history of Indian Rocks Beach.  He is a reporter and feature writer for Tampa Bay Newspapers and serves on the board of directors of the Indian Rocks Historical Society and Museum.

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