Friday, October 23, 2009
Little Old Schoolhouse: Tampa's Historic Treasure
This building, perhaps the oldest building in the Tampa area, is simply called the Old Schoolhouse. Where it is located is almost as surprising as its history. The fact that it is still standing is also a surprise to me. Directly behind Fletcher Lounge, at the north end of the original Tampa Bay Hotel building, now part of the University of Tampa, and facing the John H. Sykes College of Business, the Old Schoolhouse has a nice grassy spot amidst a very busy and growing, private 4-year university. This quaint, one-story, clapboard-sided schoolhouse, in a Greek Revival style of architecture has survived over 150 years. It was moved to this location from its original spot closer to the Hillsborough River. The story is fascinating because it all ties to the idea of building a large, luxury resort hotel in Tampa. Henry Bradley Plant bought at foreclosure sales in 1879 and 1880 the Atlantic and Gulf Railroad and the Charleston and Savannah Railroad. With these rail systems he extended his Plant Line down and across the state of Florida. In 1882, Tampa, then a village of less than a thousand citizens, was made the terminus of his southern Florida railroad and also the home port for a new line of steamships to Havana, Cuba. His business empire would include several steamship lines and luxury hotels. In deciding where exactly to build his new hotel, Plant found there were advocates for building it on the east side of the Hillsborough River, across from Tampa, as well as some who wanted it in the heart of the town, not in the “wilderness.” Tampa was a town of less than a thousand citizens in the 1880s.
Dr. James W. Covington, Tampa historian, author and long-time professor of history at the University of Tampa, wrote an article, "The Tampa Bay Hotel," which was published in 1966, in the Tequesta, journal of the Historical Association of Southern Florida. Dr. Covington wrote, “The entire western side of the Hillsborough was still part of the Florida wilderness- complete with thick undergrowth, large oak trees, deep rooted palmettos and wildlife of all sorts. It was a wild but not very historic part of the Florida wilderness. A few homesteads and developments were scattered about the area. One was the William S. Spencer farm in present day Palma Ceia. Others included Spanish Town along the present Bayshore Drive, Hyde Park, a subdivision established by G. H. Platt of Chicago in 1885 and the General Jesse Carter tract.
General Jesse Carter, a pioneer mail contractor, had been in charge of the state troops during the Third Seminole War in 1855-1858 and had erected a house and several smaller buildings on his holdings. One such building erected by General Carter was a school house to provide education for his daughter Josephine. Miss Louise Porter, a young teacher from Key West, was employed as teacher and other students who joined the class included the two Spencer children and five other guest students. This school began in 1850 (see insert photo of interior), and was the first one to be erected west of [the] Hillsborough River. During the period of the Tampa Bay Hotel's existence, the building served as an apothecary shop [pharmacy].” (The Tampa Bay Hotel: Tequesta: Number 26/1966, p.3 - 20). Plant acquired the schoolhouse in 1886 from Jessie J. Hayden when he bought the property for his hotel. In 1931, the building, then owned by the City of Tampa which also owned the Tampa Bay Hotel (which had finally closed in 1930), was given to the DeSoto Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution by Mayor D.B. McKay and the City of Tampa. On December 4, 1974, the old Schoolhouse was added to the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. It is maintained beautifully and used on occasion by members of the DeSoto Chapter, Daughters of the American Revolution.