Tampa History: A Look Back in Time

History of Tampa Florida

Moving to Tampa, also referred to as Tampa Bay, in the early ’50s was like moving to a very large undeveloped and wide-opened area. There were lots of long highways and dirt roads with acres and acres of land on either side with nothing growing on them except Palmetto plants.

To take a short drive out of the city limits, you’d be immediately surrounded by rows of orange groves. I remember as a little girl driving to these groves with my dad and picking oranges right off the trees!

One highway, in particular, comes to mind when I think back to those days. It’s called the Courtney Campbell Causeway located very close to Tampa International Airport and named after Ben T. Campbell. It was then and still is one of the connections from Tampa to Clearwater. It’s just a long highway with Tampa Bay on one side and the Gulf of Mexico on the other. Nice drive except during hurricanes!

Souvenir Shops

Anyway, back then there were only souvenir shops scattered along the causeway with every kind of shell available, a couple of restaurants with the absolute best shrimp that was freshly caught daily and served boiled with butter on the side. Along the causeway itself were a scattering of picnic tables and a couple of places to put in your boat. Other than that, not much except for lots of pine trees and oleander bushes. The “beach” was just a little section with really white sand and a refreshment stand but boy-o-boy; it was the busiest hangout in town.

Today the causeway is still a major connector to Clearwater but the scenery is much different! From one end to nearly the other, the highway is lined with restaurants (both sides) and hotels. The beach is still alive and well and the oleander bushes are still blooming (FYI, they’re poisonous) but there’s a lot more traffic these days!

Downtown Tampa

Another favorite area of mine back then was downtown Tampa. At that time, it was mostly retail stores. It was an experience to go shopping at these stores. People had an “uptown, get dressed in your best” attitude about it. One of the stores, Maas Brothers, had gloved elevator operators to take you to your floor. I spent many hours in this store (my mom retired from Maas). It was a special time, not anything like today.

S.H. Kress And J.J. Newberry Store Downtown Tampa Florida 1941
S.H. Kress And J.J. Newberry Store Downtown Tampa Florida 1941 by Phillip Pessar

My favorite drugstore, Kress, was always packed and had just so many things to look at. They had a basement (unusual in Florida) where they had their luncheonette area set up. You could sit at the counter and twirl around in the seats while waiting for your ice cream soda. The building still stands today although it’s no longer in use.

Movie Theaters

There were two movie theaters downtown at the time. I remember going to see The Sound of Music at The Palace Theatre. The other theatre is the historic Tampa Theatre built in 1926. This theatre is one of the most beautiful with its Mediterranean architecture, marble tile, statuary, and starlit ceiling. Operated by the City of Tampa, the theatre hosts a wide variety of movies from classic and movie noir to Cannes film festival entries. I remember as a young girl going to see 101 Dalmatians and as an adult, Pulp Fiction. They also host concerts and tours year-round.

Tampa Theatre
Tampa Theatre by Photomatt28

Across the Hillsborough River which runs past downtown Tampa, you’ll see the spires of the University of Tampa built in 1891 and was known at that time as the Tampa Bay Hotel. Owned by Henry B. Plant, the hotel was a getaway for the very rich. Antiques and objects d’art were transported by train to the hotel to decorate it in the lavish style of the Victorian Era. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, the hotel became the headquarters for officers waiting for orders. Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders trained at camps near the hotel and Clara Barton was a frequent visitor at the hotel.

Plant Museum

A visit to the Plant Museum (a National Historic Landmark) located inside the University is a must when you visit Tampa. They’re currently getting ready for the Christmas Tour that will take you through the many rooms decorated for the Christmas holidays.

Tampa Florida ~ aka ~ Tampa Hotel ~ Minareta ~ University of Tampa ~ Tampa Florida ~ Henry B. Plant Museum ~ University of Tampa ~ Historical Hotel Photo as it looked in 1996
Tampa Florida ~ aka ~ Tampa Hotel ~ Minareta ~ University of Tampa ~ Tampa Florida ~ Henry B. Plant Museum ~ University of Tampa ~ Historical Hotel Photo as it looked in 1996 by Onasill ~ Bill

Today, over 40 years later, when I walk the same sidewalks I did as a little girl, I see tall skyscrapers mostly housing banks and brokerage firms, and big business concerns. Four-star hotels such as the Marriott and the Hyatt are convenient to just about everything.

Gone are the stores. Most of the retail shops have long since moved to the suburban “malls” but a few specialty shops remain. Some are no longer in business like Maas Brothers, whose building took up a whole city block. The store still stands with all its wooden floors and banisters, gated elevators, and mezzanine on the corner of Franklin & Zack as a reminder of times past.

Tampa Restaurants

Downtown is filled with every type of restaurant including French, Italian, Spanish, Irish, and American. From simple elegance to bar and bistro, you’ll find a place for a good meal. In the middle of the city, there is now a park where every day a host of food vendors set up shop and serve the local working crowd. You can still find a lunch counter or two but I don’t know if they’ll let you twirl around in the seats! The new trolley is running from downtown Tampa to Ybor. Just look for the big red trolley!


An area that is new to downtown is called Channelside. Near downtown, you’ll find more food and drink establishments, the Ice Palace, now the St. Pete Times Forum which hosts’ hockey, concerts, and currently, The Cirque de Soleil. Something almost always going on there. Also not far away is the Florida Aquarium. The aquarium houses numerous habitats native to Florida and is open year-round.

While 40 years ago going to lunch, a little shopping, and then taking in a movie was the extent of what you could do downtown, today there’s a lot waiting to be explored.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my trek back in time and when visiting my fair city you’ll be able to see how it was then and how it is today.

Share on: