Tampa Armature Works building: From public transportation to public market

The grand opening had everything -- music and other live entertainment, local celebrities, and elected officials, and -- of course -- plenty of food catered by some of Tampa’s most popular restaurants. The twist? The occasion was not the opening this past February of Armature Works, the new 73,000-square-foot food hall, entertainment space, and public market. Instead, it is a description of the opening and dedication of the Tampa Electric Company streetcar car barn -- the same building that now houses Armature Works -- exactly 106 years earlier, on February 14, 1912.

Tampa’s streetcar system was an integral part of the city from its beginning in 1886 until the last car pulled into the car barn on Oak and Ola on August 3, 1946. During its 60-year history, the streetcar system grew along with the city, eventually stretching across Tampa in every direction and to every major neighborhood; downtown, Ybor City, Hyde Park, Tampa Heights, Seminole Heights, Sulphur Springs, West Tampa, Bayshore Boulevard, Ballast Point, and Port Tampa were all connected via streetcar tracks.

Growth of the system was haphazard at first, with Tampa Electric Company consolidating a variety of smaller or defunct companies when it was organized in October 1899. That uncoordinated beginning led to the existence of several streetcar storage and maintenance buildings around Tampa. The buildings, all built of wood and susceptible to fire, were in constant need of repair, and the one located in Ybor City burned to the ground, along with 10 streetcars, during the Great Fire of 1908. 1912 postcard advertising the opening of the new Tampa Electric Company streetcar barn, which is now Armature Works.

Tampa Electric Company officials decided that they needed a central facility to house and repair streetcars and to serve as a home base for the conductors and motormen who operated those cars. The location was perfect -- in the middle of the city and connected to the sprawling rail system that radiated out in all directions. The building needed to be exceptionally large with wide open spaces inside and room for 15 streetcar tracks outside. The resulting structure exceeded expectations.

The new car barn could easily accommodate every streetcar in Tampa Electric’s fleet at that time, which numbered between 20 and 30 cars. The maintenance area included tracks over a sunken space where workers could inspect and repair cars from below without having to raise the cars or have the works lay down under them. Large cranes, the tracks of which are still visible in the building, could lift car bodies as well as entire cars off the tracks. The building also included office space, a restaurant, meeting space, and a theater “for lectures for the benefit of [the] employees” as well as for “practical demonstrations … to acquaint each conductor and motorman in the smallest detail of their work.”

Food and refreshments, including from the popular Dairy Kitchen restaurant were served, and several officials from Tampa Electric spoke about the new building. Both of Tampa’s daily newspapers, the Tampa Morning Tribune and the Tampa Daily Times, covered the event and provided detailed coverage and descriptions of the new barn.

Making a transition

As with many good things, Tampa’s streetcar system came to an end in August 1946, replaced by buses and private automobiles. The car barn was used to store equipment for Tampa Electric until it was purchased by Tampa Armature Works in May 1956. The company manufactured machinery for the Tampa port and for the region’s phosphate industry. The Tampa Armature Works company eventually consolidated all of their operations under the roof of the old car barn.

In 2004, the building received designation as an official historic landmark in the City of Tampa. Tampa Heights, during that time, was on the verge of a long-talked-about renaissance. The neighborhood is among the most historic in the city, with a look and charm that once rivaled Hyde Park.

Two Birney safety cars and open-sided streetcars at the Tampa Electric car barn in the 1920's operated by extensive electric lines.That heyday had long passed, but a number of projects were in development at the turn of the 21st century. Redevelopment was slowed by the Great Recession, but the area began its current transformation in the early 2010s. The Heights project, with the car barn building as its centerpiece, is one of the main generators of that transformation.

What was once a maintenance facility for Tampa’s important streetcar system has been turned into a vast food hall on the Hillsborough River just north of downtown with some of the area’s best restaurateurs competing for space and visitors vying for a place in line. While the concept -- and the local vendors -- are fantastic in and of themselves, the architecture, scale, and (dare I say) grandeur of the building that houses Armature Works are what makes that space so special.

Rodney Kite-Powell is the Director of the Touchton Map Library and the Saunders Foundation Curator of History at the Tampa Bay History Center. He welcomes your questions and comments and can be reached by email, or by phone, (813) 228-0097.
Support for publication of this column comes from the Tampa Bay History Center. Read another history column by Kite Powell by following this link: Before Water Street Tampa: A brief history of the Garrison Section of Downtown Tampa.
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