Transforming Tampa Bay: Old buildings, new juice

Two of Tampa’s most beloved gathering spots get major makeovers.

click to enlarge A rendering of the new seats and carpeting planned for Tampa Theatre. - courtesy tampa theatre
courtesy tampa theatre
A rendering of the new seats and carpeting planned for Tampa Theatre.

Tampa Theatre and Fort Homer Hesterly Armory have enjoyed several incarnations during their years of community service. Built in 1926 and 1941, respectively, they’re both listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are now poised for their next rebirth.

Tampa’s first fully air-conditioned building, Tampa Theatre was built by a richly imaginative architect, John Eberson, who was hailed nationally for his many “atmospheric theatres.” Eberson called the Tampa Theatre his “favorite,” and it was a big hit with locals from the moment its ornate doors opened. Guests were transported to faraway climes with twinkling stars, wrought-iron railings, faux open-air patios, statues, tapestries, stuffed peacocks and elaborately painted tiles.

For five decades, the cinema was popular and well-used, but by 1973 when it closed its doors, it was rundown. After an energetic campaign by preservationists, the City of Tampa acquired the building and restored it in 1978. The Mighty Wurlitzer, the pipe organ that accompanied many silent films, had been sold in the 1950s; it was repurchased in 1981 by the Central Florida Theatre Organ Society, which still maintains and plays it before most events.

Since 2000, many improvements have been heralded, including the replication and reinstallation of the canopy, box office and fabulous vertical blade sign, and the installation of a digital projection and audio system. However, the wiring, plumbing and AC were all antique, and the seats were scaled for 20th century-sized patrons.

Now, a capital campaign entitled “Cush Your Tush” is being rolled out for the express purpose of funding new, more comfortable seats for the auditorium as well as other improvements. Over half of the $6 million goal has already been raised from public and private sources.

Unglamorous but necessary work will address water intrusion in the basement with waterproofing, sump pumps, a drainage field and an emergency generator. Windows, doors and transoms on the building’s east side are being restored and replaced. The electrical systems are being overhauled.

“We’ve researched the original paint colors to ensure authenticity when we repair the plaster and repaint the lobby,” explained John Bell, Tampa Theatre president and CEO. "Everyone loves the theater now, but she’s like your grandmother, you’ve gotten used to her wrinkles. Wait until you see her as a young filly with fresh paint!”

(You can contribute at

click to enlarge A triptych showing the original Armory ceiling. - Amy Martz
Amy Martz
A triptych showing the original Armory ceiling.

Seventy-five years after it opened on Pearl Harbor Day, Ft. Homer Hesterly Armory has re-emerged as “a YMCA on cultural steroids,” according to David Scher, lay chair of the Bryan Glazer Family JCC. Sparked by then-City Attorney Jim Shimberg’s suggestion, Scher approached the National Guard to purchase the property, which had been dormant for a decade.

The Armory always played a dual role, both as defense facility and entertainment venue. Among the many famous performers who appeared there were Elvis Presley, the Allman Brothers, James Brown, Santana and The Doors. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke there, as did John F. Kennedy — four days before he was assassinated in Dallas.

Wrestling matches were held in the plain but capacious main hall, as were weddings and school events. Situated between Tampa’s black, white and Latin communities, the hall was well-used by all.

The National Guard was successful in getting a new facility in Pinellas Park in 2003, so the 85,000-square-foot Art Deco structure closed. Several plans came forth, but nothing moved ahead until the Jewish Federation Board developed an ambitious program to transform the cavernous but decrepit structure into a multi-purpose community center serving all of Tampa.

Re-jiggering the Armory to address the JCC’s disparate needs proved to be a design challenge, said Sol Fleischman, the architect-of-record.

“First, the building had to be brought up to code and it had never been air-conditioned,” he said. “Our firm, FleischmanGarcia, provided comprehensive master planning, architectural and interior design services, and worked through many changes to the building’s program which proved to be very dynamic.” 

FleischmanGarcia has designed everything from restaurants to offices to fitness centers, and that varied experience came in handy. Imagine trying to fit a kosher catering kitchen, social service agency, jewelry-making studio, pilates studio, economic development office, running track, event space, locker rooms. three swimming pools, fitness center, and pottery kilns — and more — into one structure. 

The completed design of the Bryan Glazer Family JCC is a solved puzzle. The central entry allows social uses to flow to the left and members to the right. The constant joy of natural light animates the rooms, and the public spaces are divisible in many ways. With all the activities and programs planned here, you know there will be a constant stream of diverse visitors.

“This place is a win-win for everyone,” said Jack Ross, director of the Tampa Jewish Community Centers, “bringing together Jews and non-Jews, connecting the City of Tampa’s art programs, Patel Center classes, and collaborations which haven’t yet been envisioned. We built for flexibility.”

As a former Tampa Theatre Board Chair and donor to the JCC, I am, perhaps, biased in my enthusiasm for these projects. But the fresh energy behind these historic facades bodes well for all of us.