Chiselers carve out philanthropic niche to help preserve Tampa's most recognizable building

Once known as the Tampa Bay Hotel, the Victorian-era building now known as Plant Hall at the University of Tampa once drew tourists from all over the world. The 500-room hotel boasted the first elevator in Florida and the state’s first all-electric, steam-heated, fireproofed hotel. The New York Times called the resort “one of the grandest in the country” during its heyday. 


The former hotel may no longer provide resort-style lodging, but it thrives today by providing classrooms for college students, faculty offices and ornate spaces for community gatherings in the main structure on the UT campus on the west bank of the Hillsborough River in downtown Tampa. 

The restoration of Plant Hall is also the sole focus of the Chiselers, a group that its members believe was among the very first historic preservation organizations in the United States devoted to preserving a single building.

Betty Wood, who joined the Chiselers nearly 45 years ago, is one of the oldest, longest-serving members of the organization. Wood says the group has raised some $7 million since its founding in 1959, but that most of those funds have come during the last 20 years. A good portion of that money has been raised by the organization’s annual Chiselers Market

The Chiselers Market, which will be Saturday, March 12, 2016, is one of the most significant fundraising sources for the group. A bi-annual fashion show sponsored by Neiman Marcus and the Henry B. Plant Museum is another revenue source for raising restoration funds.
 
Raising money for restoring the building is an ongoing and essential aspect to preserving Plant Hall, which was built by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant and originally served as the Tampa Bay Hotel from its opening in 1891 until 1930. See its history portrayed in the video: The Tampa Bay Hotel: Florida’s First Magic Kingdom.

“It costs about $2,500 just to restore one window,” Wood says. There are 1,068 windows on the building. Throw in aging balconies, timeworn bricks, wiring and plumbing from a bygone era, and an original foundation, and it becomes readily apparent why the Chiselers dedicate so much of their time and efforts to raising money for the iconic Tampa landmark.

Chiselers chip away at fundraising 
 
The Chiselers have made steady progress over the years in raising the money required to help maintain and restore the building. 

“During our first years, we mainly took care of basic aesthetics,” Wood explains. The big turnaround came in 1996, when the Chiselers adopted a master plan for the building and co-founded the Tampa Bay Hotel Advisory Council, which includes representatives from the City of Tampa, the University of Tampa, the Henry B. Plant Museum, and members of the Tampa-area preservation community. Funds began pouring in for amounts the group had not seen in its then-previous 37 years.
 
In 2002, a prestigious Save America’s Treasures grant provided $400,000 that allowed restorers to seal and repair 98,000 square feet of brick and many windows. The University of Tampa Class of 2008 provided $10,000 to restore the Plant Hall lobby fireplaces. In 2012, the Republican National Committee donated $56,000 in memorial to local developer Al Austin to restore windows in the music room. Over the next two years, Hillsborough County grants amounting to $500,000 provided for the restoration of 311 windows and 22 balconies.
 
Early in 2016, the year of the building’s 125th anniversary, the Chiselers dedicated the newly restored music room – a project made possible by a $362,000 gift from the estate of Ashby and Emily Moody, a Chiselers founder and president.

“[Emily Moody] loved music, so we put the money toward restoring the music room, including redoing the woodwork and the [room’s] Wine, Women, and Song painting,” Woods says. Laughing, she adds, “that’s what the Chiselers are -- wine, women, and song.” 

According to the story behind this nonprofit organization, the Chiselers were also once, indeed, “chiselers.” It all started in the late 1950s when a group of prominent women got together after lunches to chisel away old mortar from imported tiles that were once located in Plant Hall’s grandiose fireplaces. One day, after several weeks of chiseling away at the old tiles, a woman name Ruth Henry said to her friends, “We’re nothing but a bunch of Chiselers!” The name stuck. 

Preserving the past, saving for the future

While there are many windows yet to be restored and rooms still waiting for more tender loving care, the Chiselers do have their eyes on one big future project -- opening up the ceiling in the first-floor lobby area to its original design. 

“It’s nothing more than a dream right now,” says Wood. “We could be years before we ever have the money to do that.” The cost -- potentially running into the millions -- is steep in part because the project would entail moving classrooms on the second floor.

Pictures of the original lobby design, such as seen on a postcard image from the early 1900s, show the hotel was a grand place during its heyday. It even welcomed the likes of President Theodore Roosevelt, the Queen of England, and baseball legend Babe Ruth. Its historical significance was officially cemented when Plant Hall was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
 
“It was nominated for its architectural significance,” says Jim Gabbert, historian with the National Register of Historic Places program at the National Park Service. “It’s a fantastic example of [the] Moorish Revival [style]. Exotic revivals such as this were not typical, but were indicative of both the era and the location. 

“Florida was an ‘exotic’ retreat for northerners, and Henry Plant constructed this hotel to take advantage of the location and the willingness of a newly wealthy class of people in the midst of the gilded age to travel to the warmth of Florida.” Gabbert adds, “it appears that Plant spared no expense, but the vagaries of the nation’s and Florida’s economy, combined with Plant’s death [in 1899] doomed the continued success of the hotel.”
 
Plant’s heirs sold the property to the City of Tampa in 1905 for a mere $125,000 -- a far cry from the $3 million Plant spent to build and furnish the hotel 15 years earlier. After hotel operations crumbled in the early 1930s, the founding of the University of Tampa at the former Tampa Bay Hotel helped keep the building alive. Through the work of the Chiselers and other preservation groups, including the Henry B. Plant Museum Society and Friends of Plant Hall, the building continues standing as a shining landmark less than half a mile from the modern-era high-rises of downtown Tampa.

“The building is solid as a rock,” Tampa Historian Del Acosta says about Plant Hall, which was constructed of poured concrete and steel reinforcements. “All buildings require maintenance, but this is a special building,” he says, referring to it as “one of the five most important Victorian-era buildings in the United States.”

Focus on preserving historic nature of building

Preservation Architect Ken Garcia of Tampa agrees. “It’s one of the top-shelf jewels in the United States,” he says of Plant Hall. Garcia, who works at Abell Garcia Architect in Tampa, helped devise the master plan that preservationists who are working on Plant Hall use when determining what they should and shouldn’t do during their restoration of the historic building. 

“Many things that were done years ago were [architecturally] inappropriate,” he says of remodeling efforts during the 1960s and 70s. Garcia refers to electrical conduit that was run along the outsides of walls and ceilings, lighting fixtures and ceiling fans that didn’t match the original décor of the building and other architectural transgressions. “It was all well-meaning and innocent work, but we are now focused on making sure that anything we do suits the historic nature of the building.” 

Garcia is proud of the work that was done on the recently unveiled music room. “It was a success,” he says, “and an example of what we need to do moving forward.” He, like the Chiselers, says restoring the atrium in the first-floor lobby is a vision that will hopefully one day come to fruition. “It’s the number-one project that everyone has in their hearts,” he says. 

“We did an investigation on the project years ago. We would need to address several issues,” the architect relates. “[The project] would displace six classrooms. We would need to figure out where else they could go.” Then there are construction logistics. “More significantly, if this [project] occurs, it’s in the heart of the building, which means there are practical issues. How do you get around while the work is being done?” 

Finally, there are coding concerns. “When we open up an atrium, we’re going to need to work with the fire marshal and ensure everything is done properly from the fire protection side of things – we can definitely get through that, but it’s one of those things we’ll have to consider.” 

The architect knows the job will be a painstaking process. “If it’s done, it’s got to be done right. There are ample photos to show us how the room looked, and there was a lot of elaborate carved woodwork with the railings and balusters – it would definitely run into the millions.” 

There’s a lot of other work on the docket, too, including repairs on the building’s iconic minarets. “They were nicely done when they were built, but some of the seams are leaking, so we’ll need to address that.” And there are more windows to be restored – more than 100. “We took care of the worst windows years ago, but others still need work.” 

In reality, the work on Plant Hall will never be done. 

“It will always goes on, because there’s always something to maintain or work on. It’s a big building!” he remarks. “Thank God for the University of Tampa, and thank God for the Chiselers,” he says. “If not for the University of Tampa moving in [in the 1930s] this building would have been redeveloped. “The university being here gave the building a purpose.” 

As for the Chiselers? “They’ve raised so much money and helped make it possible to do the work we’re doing. We’ve received some large grants,” he notes. “Getting the Save America’s Treasures grant is a show of the Chiseler’s strength.” 

Looking for a few big grants, donations
 
Karen Dalton, who serves as VP of the Chiselers board, stays busy overseeing fundraising efforts and leading the organization of 325 women. 

“One of the things we do is write grants,” says Dalton. “Many are matching grants, so if we want $400,000 from the state, we have to also raise $400,000,” she explains. 

Dalton says the Chiselers Market is essential to bringing in more of those funds. “The market is our visibility.” It’s also a great place for treasure hunters. “We sell art, furniture, pots and pans, china, plants. …” she reels off. “We also have a bargain area.” The items are sold in a silent auction that takes place in the grand salon.
 
Dalton reinforces the Chiselers’ goal of someday getting to work on reopening the atrium in the first-floor lobby. 

“We want to restore the lobby to its former glory,” says Dalton, who hails from Tucson, AZ, and has lived in Tampa 20 years. “We are so lucky that we have it.”
 
 More Info on the 53rd annual Chiseler’s Market
 
Saturday, March 12, 2016
9 a.m. - 3 p.m.
The University of Tampa – Plant Hall
401 W. Kennedy Boulevard Tampa, Florida 33606
Admission is free.
Food trucks will be onsite.

Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

 Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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