The Tampa Bay Hotel Grounds

The Tampa Bay Hotel Grounds“As attractive as a bountiful Nature and the skill of landscape gardeners can make them.”

In 1886, Henry Plant purchased land along the Hillsborough River from Jess Hayden, whose family home, (located approximately where the UT lobby is now), was surrounded by an orange grove. When hotel construction began in 1888, much of the grove was preserved for its tropical flair. In 1890, Mr. Plant purchased more land from Nattie McKay. Now he had 150 acres at his disposal. He set aside 60 acres for a spectacular garden to complement his Moorish palace, the Tampa Bay Hotel.

Influenced by the popular Eclectic Style of landscape design, Head Gardener, Anton Fiehe set out to create an exotic paradise. For most of the century, collecting exotics had been the rage on both sides of the Atlantic. To procure rare plants, Plant and Fiehe travelled by steamship to Cuba and to the “Kings House gardens and many of the finer private grounds in Jamaica.” They returned with a variety that was unequaled in this country. The garden showcased these rare specimens and enticed visitors with surprising touches such as fountains, a flagpole, pathways and flowerbeds shaped like stars, hearts and even an anchor. From above, one of the most famous pathways was known as “The Owl” for it resembled a bird’s head in profile.

The Tampa Bay Hotel GroundsThe Tampa Bay Hotel and its tropical wonderland opened in February 1891. The leading American travel writer, William Drysdale, immediately praised the gardens – or grounds – in the New York Times. Calling the Hotel a “house”, he described a stroll in a fairyland: “We set out across the soft grass, past flower beds, fountains, palms, banana plantations, and beds of pineapples, toward the river. There is a gentle slope from house to river, and near the top of the ascent a spring of pure water bubbles from the ground, and runs in a little streamlet to the shore. The moist sides of the brook have been converted into a tropical jungle, full of palms, bananas, flowers, and ferns. It was a luxury to walk over the green Bermuda grass…We passed by the immense beds of violets in bloom, equally large beds of blooming pansies, beds of fragrant roses, clusters of oleanders and bamboos…and a length stood under the palmettos by the river side, whence one of the best views of the building is to be had.”

Many of these plants were too tender to bear the cold and unfortunately, much of this original garden was destroyed by a deep freeze just a few years after it was installed. But the grounds continued to be rejuvenated and re-worked each season, and its enchantment remained. Some of the garden was lost when the Hotel Casino was built in 1896. An article in Life magazine in 1913, claimed the garden was 42 acres of “luxuriant tropical shrubbery and flowers, beautiful palm fringed walks, fountains and shady nooks, facing the Hillsborough River.”

Tampa Bay HotelBy 1911, most of the flowerbeds and vegetable gardens had been replaced with open expanses of lawn. Throughout the early 20th century, the grounds continued to be a gathering spot for parties, lawn games, picnics and concerts.

Henry B. Plant Museum – Garden Exhibit – 2008