A few years ago, this strip of riverfront was an abandoned, weed-clogged marsh that few Tampanians had any reason to visit.
Today, well-heeled guests sip craft beers while waiting to be seated at a restaurant named by OpenTable as one of the top 100 in America.
Ulele Native-Inspired Food and Spirits, a new seafood restaurant located in a former abandoned pump station along the Hillsborough River, is the latest in a series of renovation projects that have opened formerly vacant strips of Tampa to residents and travelers alike.
Today, you can spend an entire weekend eating, drinking and cavorting in historic Tampa buildings where Teddy Roosevelt once slept and Babe Ruth hit his longest home run. Most of the structures have danced with demolition or had been abandoned for years before being reincarnated as restaurants, bars and hotels.
“It’s exciting because there have been plans to do things with these buildings for a long time — and now they’re actually coming to fruition,” said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of history at the Tampa Bay History Center.
Historic Downtown Tampa Gems
About a mile from Ulele, travelers roll their suitcases over the marble floors where some of the area’s most important civil rights trials were held and the city’s former mafia bosses took their last steps as free men.
The swanky Le Meridien hotel opened last year in the city’s century-old federal courthouse. Before Le Meridien, the building sat empty for about a decade, silent except for the hum of the air conditioners that kept the mold at bay.
Around the corner, an investment made by the city more than 30 years ago saved another historic building from the wrecking ball.
When the Tampa Theatre opened in 1926, it was designed to transport moviegoers to an- other world — even when there was nothing on the screen. Inside, the theater looks like a Mediterranean courtyard. Statues and columns flank the stage; taxidermy doves and peacocks perch on fairytale terraces. The ceiling is studded with 99 tiny twinkling bulbs.
It was paradise until the 1960s, when the neighborhood went to pot and the theater was doomed for demolition. The city swooped in and bought the building for $1. A price some at the time said was too high.
Today, the theater is one of the most active of its kind, opening its doors more than 600 times a year for indie film screenings, concerts and the city’s local Gasparilla International Film Festival.
Before each filming, a Mighty Wurlitzer rises from the stage floor for a 15-minute live show.
A Hotel Like No Other
The jewels in Tampa’s historic-building crown are the sparkling minarets of the former Tampa Bay Hotel. Built in 1891 by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant, the opulent downtown hotel hosted everyone from Babe Ruth — who hit his longest home run on the hotel’s grounds — to bandmaster John Philip Sousa.
At its heyday, the hotel’s private golf course, 2,000-seat performance hall and heated indoor swimming pool offered a luxury unparalleled in the area. Even the Queen of England came by to check it out.
But when Plant died in 1899, his family showed little interest in running the grand hotel. Then, the Great Depression hit. The building sat vacant for a short time before re-opening as the University of Tampa. The on-site Henry B. Plant Museum celebrates the school’s history of hospitality.
Cigar Factories Turned Indie Bars
The whole “repurpose a historic building in to something new” thing is old news in Ybor City, just two miles east of downtown.
From the 1880s to the mid-1920s, the cigar industry was the foundation of Tampa’s economy. More than 400 million cigars were produced in Ybor annually, earning Tampa the nickname the “Cigar Capital of the World.”
Today, the factories and stores that served the workers are home to indie-music venues, tattoo parlors and high-end Italian restaurants.
The James Joyce Irish Pub & Eatery dishes out shepherd’s pie and Guinness in the former shell of the Castellano & Pizzo grocery store, one of the first Italian markets in Tampa. It opened in 1892 to serve the Italians who had traded backbreaking work in Louisiana’s sugarcane fields for jobs in Ybor’s budding cigar industry.
Around the corner, Cigar City Cider and Mead opened last year in one of the city’s most famed historic buildings. That is, if you believe the rumors.
Teddy Roosevelt brought his Rough Riders to Tampa in the spring of 1898 to await orders to ship to Cuba. That much is true. But whether Teddy and his buddies drank beer in a tavern that once stood here, as lore would have it, is debatable.
Even more unlikely is the local tale that one Rough Rider fired his gun in the air and accidentally killed a woman — uhm “working” — on the second floor, making her the first casualty of the Spanish-American War.
Tampa historians shoot this story down faster than you can say, “I’ll have another round of mead.”
But hey, a city can dream.
A version of the story originally appeared in the travel section of the Austin American-Statesman newspaper.