By Florence Beth Snyder
First-time visitors to the University of Tampa are always startled by the sight of Plant Hall. UT's flagship building is a jaw-dropping mashup of ornate Victorian gingerbread topped by a thick icing of Moorish minarets, domes and cupolas. It took three years and $3 million — a staggering sum in those days — to open the doors in 1891 as the Tampa Bay Hotel.
Railroad magnate Henry B. Plant provided the vision and the cash for this pleasure palace. It was the first hotel in Florida outfitted with an elevator, electric lights, and a telephone in each room. Word spread quickly among the world's rich and famous, and people who could afford a five-star vacation flocked to the resort on the bank of the Hillsborough River.
The hotel did not survive the Great Depression, but found new life in the 20th Century as a community of scholars. Today, UT serves 8,000 students from all 50 states and 100 countries. The luxury hotel rooms were repurposed as classrooms and faculty offices. But you can still see the grand public rooms where luminaries like Teddy Roosevelt and Babe Ruth once dined and danced.
Plant Hall is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and regularly hosts weddings and conventions for up to 10,000 guests, as well as field trips for area schoolchildren. A museum dedicated to Plant’s legacy occupies a corner of Plant Hall and offers visitors fascinating insight into the Gilded Age.
Top off your museum tour with a leisurely stroll around UT's 105 acres. Take in the views of the Hillsborough River and the distinctive skyline of Tampa's bustling downtown. Directly in front of the museum is Plant Park, which features cannons from Tampa's original harbor fort and the magnificent oak tree where 16th Century Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto is said to have bartered with Native Americans. Palm trees, rose bushes, azaleas, and many more oak trees round out the landscape.
The Sticks of Fire sculpture takes its inspiration from the Native American meaning of the word Tampa: "bringing light of knowledge and warmth of feeling to a people who don't just wish to exist, but to excel." Its seven pillars were crafted in Rockford, Ill., and are illuminated by four floodlights surrounding a retaining pool.
UT's fans of science, and science fiction, have a special place in their hearts for the Anti-Gravity Rock, a gift of businessman and philanthropist Roger Babson. Heartbroken over the drowning death of his sister, Babson became obsessed with the idea of "defying gravity" and donated money and stock to colleges and universities willing to place on their grounds one of his messages to students "...of the blessings forthcoming when science determines what gravity is, how it works, and how it may be controlled."
Also aiming to inspire is the Sykes Chapel and Center, "an inspiring setting for meditation and celebration of all faiths" with a mission to enhance "understanding of diversity, world cultures and religions."
The center's design suggests hands locked in prayer. Exterior red brick "relates the Sykes center to the red brick construction throughout campus, while the zinc roof references the stainless steel minarets atop Plant Hall.” The Dobson Company's musical magicians worked directly with the building's architects to create an ear-delighting church organ, tricked out with 3,184 pipes and standing an eye-popping 55 feet tall. The adjacent Sunrise Garden and Sykes Meditation Garden provide additional space for quiet contemplation and thoughtful conversation.
The Scarfone/Hartley Gallery showcases contemporary national and international artists. Frequent exhibitions and events highlight the works of students, faculty, and artists-in-residence at UT's innovative STUDIO-f.
People who live and work in Tampa Bay are serious about sports, and the community's passion has rubbed off. UT's athletic teams, known as the Spartans, compete in all 19 NCAA Division II varsity sports. There are dedicated stadiums for baseball, softball, soccer, track and lacrosse, each boasting amenities not usually found in schools of UT's size.
When you go…
University of Tampa
401 W. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa, Fla., 33606
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