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Why do they call it that? Plant Hall: Climb inside minaret towers at University of Tampa

8:10 AM, Sep 28, 2011   |    comments
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They're icons of Tampa Bay: the onion-shaped silver minarets at the top of the University of Tampa. We'll tell you the story behind them -- and we'll take up you inside one!

Why do they call it Plant Hall?

These days, you'll find mostly corridors and classrooms here.

But when the Tampa Bay Hotel opened its hand-carved doors 120 years ago, it was the most lavish, stunning place for 200 miles in any direction.

You can still see pieces of that luxury today. They're preserved at the building's Henry B. Plant Museum by staff members like Sally Shifke.

"Henry Plant was a self-made man who envisioned a transportation system where he could take people from the North and travel down to the south -- by railroad and ship -- and give them a vacation oasis in paradise," Shifke said.

This hotel, with 511 rooms, was the flagship of it all.

The half-mile-long behemoth cost $2.5 million to build, and -- get this -- another half-million dollars to furnish. That's more than $62 million in today's money.

"This was one of the first buildings to be electrified in the State of Florida. He had to build a power plant on the grounds because there was no power in Tampa, Florida," Shifke said.

Everything was so ornate and detailed... Right up to the minarets that symbolize Tampa's skyline.

The climb up into a minaret starts in an old servant's room. You head around the corner and walk up two shoulder-width staircases that are as narrow as any you've ever tried to squeeze through.

From, there the air gets hotter as you head into the brick cylinder that makes up the somewhat narrow neck of the tower. Big steel beams have been added to reinforce the more than century-old wood supports inside.

The more ladders take you up into the onion-shaped dome. You push up through a hatch and into the refreshingly cool breeze high above the University of Tampa.

From a perch just below the ultimate top of the minaret, you can survey a gorgeous swath of the City of Tampa.

Turning, you can take in everything from MacDill Air Force Base to Raymond James Stadium. Downtown Tampa's skyline stretches out across the river before you.

The view was stunningly different for Henry Plant. Tampa was just a village of 750 people when he arrived in the second half of the 1800's. His work created the city.

He also envisioned those distinctive minarets -- but where did that distinctive design come from?

"Henry Plant had traveled in Europe and the Middle East, and he was captivated by the Middle Eastern architecture," Shifke said. "And he wanted to create this exotic palace for wealthy northerners to come and visit."

But this palace had a problem.

It was built too big!

The only time it ever filled is when Teddy Roosevelt and other officers preparing to invade Cuba stayed here and planned the Spanish-American War.

This palace was a money pit.

"[Plant] passes away in 1899 -- he's 79 years old -- and his heirs sell the building to the City of Tampa," Shifke said.

Then came a move that may have saved this icon from a date with a wrecking ball.

The new University of Tampa had been searching for a home -- and set up shop here in 1933.

A one wing remains today as the impressive Henry B. Plant Museum.

The rest of the building is classrooms and corridors, dedicated to the man who created it all, as the University of Tampa's Plant Hall.

Why do they call it that? Now you know.

If you haven't been to the Plant Museum before, a great time to go is the month of December. They decorate 14 rooms for the Victorian Christmas Stroll.

This year, the event runs every day from December 1st through 23rd.

We feature new "Why do they call it that?" stories each Wednesday on 10 News at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Check out previous editions of the Emmy-nominated series at our "Why do they call it that?" website: wtsp.com/callitthat.

Grayson Kamm, 10 News

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