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The History of Downtown Tampa

Inhabited and utilized for thousands of years, Tampa’s downtown has been home to countless people, businesses and commercial ventures. The development of Tampa as a city, which dates back to the establishment of Fort Brooke in 1824, has had a profound effect on the region. Growth began in earnest in 1847, when the village of Tampa — what we now consider downtown — was first platted into blocks by John Jackson. Six years later, he completed a plat of Tampa that is still used today as the legal description for downtown land transactions.

Fort Brooke remained a fixture of Tampa throughout the mid-19th century. The fort gained prominence during the Second Seminole War (1835-1842) as the southern base for the United States Army. General Zachary Taylor, who would later become president of the United States, commanded the Army from the southern outpost from 1838 to 1840. Fort Brooke’s importance waned at the end of the 1850s, when the majority of Florida’s Seminoles were forcibly removed from the state and the remainder were pushed into the Everglades.

Fort Brooke was used by the Confederate Army during the Civil War and maintained by the United States Army during Reconstruction. By the early 1880s, though, the Army realized it no longer needed a fort on Hillsborough Bay. The fort was decommissioned in 1883, and the town of Tampa, which had grown from the northern boundary of the fort, was eager to buy the land in the hopes of creating a park. Instead, the land was transferred to the Department of the Interior and opened to homesteading.

Four families secured homesteads on the old fort property: the Carews, a white family from Gainesville, and the Stillings, Caesar and Jones families, three Black families from Tampa. More settlers moved to the area, and it was eventually incorporated as the town of Fort Brooke.

Development blossomed in the towns of Tampa and Fort Brooke soon after the arrival of Henry Plant’s railroad — which connected Tampa to Jacksonville and points farther north in December 1883 — and steamship line, which connected Tampa to port cities along the Gulf Coast, plus Key West and Havana, Cuba. The path taken by Plant’s rail system through Tampa remains to this day along Polk Street. In the 1890s and early 1900s, the shape and character of downtown began to shift.

By 1907, the city of Tampa annexed the town of Fort Brooke. By then, the Army Corps of Engineers had dredged a shipping channel through Hillsborough Bay to the south end of downtown. Simultaneously, many people had begun moving out of downtown, selling their homes so commercial buildings could be constructed and relocating to the residential neighborhoods of Tampa Heights or Hyde Park.

The nature of the commercial buildings downtown was also changing. Brick buildings, some stretching four and ?ve stories, were rapidly replacing two-story wood-frame structures. Franklin Street was fast becoming the center of banking and professional offices for all of Florida’s west coast. Hotels and department stores were also important features of Tampa’s downtown business landscape. Among the most iconic were the Hillsboro Hotel, the Tampa Terrace Hotel and the Bay View Hotel. For shopping, the go-to department stores were Maas Brothers and Wolf Brothers, plus Kress and Woolworths.

Downtown Tampa hit its peak during World War II. Following the war, the loss of Tampa’s streetcar system, residential expansion out into the suburbs, and the advent of the shopping center and shopping mall all led to the downfall of Tampa’s downtown. By the 1970s, many of downtown’s stores had closed, and by the late 1980s, the Westshore business district was effectively competing with downtown for office buildings and the workers to ?ll them.

The unique buildings that made up downtown’s early skyline were beginning to disappear, too. Gone were the Bay View, Hillsboro and Tampa Terrace hotels, along with several movie theaters. From the perspective of historic preservationists, the low point of this downturn was the demolition of the First National Bank building and the Tampa Gas Company building in 1993. Preservation success stories from this era include the Tampa Theatre and Tampa’s Old City Hall.

But Tampa was not unique during this time. Many downtowns across the country faced a similar postwar decline. And while the improvements Tampa’s downtown has experienced are not exactly original, either, there are some important differences in Tampa’s renaissance. One of them started in 1976 but was not completed until 40 years later — the Tampa Riverwalk. The Riverwalk, though, would not be as successful without the cultural institutions that call downtown home: the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, the Tampa Museum of Art, the Glazer Children’s Museum, the Florida Museum of Photographic Arts, and the Tampa Bay History Center.

The real estate boom of the early 2000s also contributed to downtown’s rebirth, with two residential towers (Element and Skypoint) right in the middle of town. The Channelside area, which was home to much of Tampa’s port industry, began a new life as a residential and entertainment area. While the entertainment part did not last (at least in the form it was constructed; the waterfront Sparkman Wharf development has revived it in new ways), the residential boom has continued.

Perhaps the largest single factor in Tampa’s urban boom is tied to approximately 50 acres of land on the southeast section of downtown — much of it on the land once occupied by Fort Brooke. The Water Street Tampa project has changed the face of downtown Tampa. Strategic Property Partners, the real estate development firm leading the Water Street Tampa effort, has already added a JW Marriott hotel, twin apartment towers and, through a partnership with the University of South Florida, a medical school tower, to the downtown cityscape. Much more is under construction, including a five-star hotel, an office tower and a variety of mixed-use projects.

Downtown’s future has not been this bright in close to 100 years. The sandy streets of 19th century Tampa have given way to gleaming towers and waterfront views. One can only wonder what John Jackson would think of the town he platted so long ago.

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