The Tampa Bay Hotel was famous around the world for the beautiful sculptures and artistic works that lined its walls and the surrounding Plant Park. Guests of the hotel marveled at the pieces that adorned the entryway of the Hotel, all the way down the hallways and into the rooms in which the guests stayed. These included the “dancing girls”, placed near the entrance of the hotel, and an “Esmeralda with her goat” statue that greeted guests as they walked in. These treasures were specially purchased by the Plants themselves, and Mrs. Margaret Loughman Plant was sent abroad to seek out the most beautiful artifacts from the European and Oriental spheres to bring back to her family’s hotel. For this task, it is said, she was given a limitless budget.
The total cost to decorate the Tampa Bay Hotel was about half a million dollars, most of which was paid to the items that Mrs. Plant collected on her tours of the East. This love of art collection continued past the days of decorating Plant’s hotel, and the Plants became frequent visitors to global expositions of the arts and culture of the day. We know that one or both of them was present for a particularly notable event: the Paris Exposition of 1889.
Here, they would have witnessed the most innovative technology of the day, whether it be in art, architecture, or thought. It is possible that the Plants would have come directly into contact with prominent artists, including one George Gray Barnard of Pennsylvania. He was a prominent artist of the day active at these world Expositions, and was the creator of the mantlepiece of the Electricity Tower, which was the visual focal point of the Paris Exposition of 1900 as visitors entered.
It is unclear exactly when the Plants came to know George Gray Barnard’s work, but modern visitors can pay tribute to a testament of the artistic impact that he had on the Plant family. Following Henry B. Plant’s death in 1899, prior to the decline of the Tampa Bay Hotel, Margaret Loughman Plant commissioned a memorial sculpture for Henry, and enlisted George Gray Barnard as her artist of choice.
The completed sculpture is a stylistic masterpiece, and incorporates many facets of Plant’s businesses and livelihoods. Not only did it come to sit on the grounds of Plant Park, located directly behind the Tampa Bay Hotel, but it was given elements that allude to Plant’s steamships, his “Plant System” railways, and to his other enterprises. These elements were paired with mermaids and fish, and were set above a pond that hotel guests and later university students would frequent on their path into the gardens.
Even past Henry B. Plant’s death, a flair for the arts continued to reign at his hotel. Barnard’s case study aside, it is evident that the Tampa Bay Hotel’s personality, whether interiorly or exteriorly, was shaped by the artistic treasures that it held. Guests wrote back to their family members about the beauties of the hotel, and how it was unlike anything they’d ever seen. The Tampa Bay Hotel was renowned for being both exotic and the best place to settle in for a Florida winter.
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