Sometimes what seems like a simple choice can change everything.

Henry Plant chose to bring his railroad to Tampa.  Certainly you can argue that the small village that was here pre-Henry would have made something of itself. But, it’s hard to imagine the city of Tampa that exits today would be anything close to what it is without Henry having made that choice.

Around 125 years or so after Henry’s choice, I chose to work at the Henry Plant Museum (HPM). My job title was Collection Caretaker and I worked to serve as a steward of the collective cultural heritage that is Henry Plant’s legacy. Cultural heritage can be profound. It can provide perspectives that help you locate your own personal experience relative to history – a sense of one’s own time and place. I know my time at the HPM has certainly changed my perspective on a lot of things. Over time I came to think that maybe my job title should actually be Keeper of the Castle. 

Early in life I studied sculpture and I went to school at a time that was informed by a minimal approach – a conceptually clean perspective with little that is decorative or playful. I took it all pretty seriously. Could be that’s why I have found Henry and Margaret Plant’s collection so fun to be around – a clock with a rooster that is wrasslin Puttis (Puttis as I explained in an earlier blog is plural for Putto – those adorable cherubs seen below in a beat down with the rooster!). Or how about an elephant with a big ole cheesy grin – why yes please!

Clock with Putti Figures, Ormolu, Late 19th Century, Collection of HPM
Elephant with Pagoda, Ceramic, Late 19th Century, Collection of HPM

And then there’s this painting that is a depiction from a scene in an opera that was a favorite of Henry’s – over 130 years old now, check out the leering figure over the soldier’s left shoulder – in my mind I have him pegged as “the creep” – the figure over her right shoulder is a pretty interesting looking character as well.  Like so many other things in the collection this painting always brings me back to the choices Henry made – his desire to inspire, delight and amuse.

Daughter of Regiment, Oil on Canvas, Late 19th Century, Collection of HPM
Daughter of Regiment (Detail)

Recently I made a rather difficult choice about being the Keeper of the Castle. I have really loved this job and the people I’ve been able to work with. But you know what, time marches on and sadly there comes a moment when you realize that maybe it’s time for you to march along as well.  So, I’ve chosen to retire and I guess that choice will make this my last post.

I’ve really enjoyed sharing some of my experiences with you and I hope the same holds true for you. But more than anything I really hope you choose to cherish the Henry Plant Museum as I have. It’s a rare and unique treasure.

With most sincere regards,

Nora Armstrong

Collection Caretaker
Henry Plant Museum

What did you do on your summer vacation?

Remember at the start of the school year when there was always that dreaded back to school essay? Well I just gave myself that assignment and I’m here to tell you it’s a lot more fun to do this as an adult who’s not sitting at a 3rd grade desk!

This summer, while taking a vacation I was lucky enough to be able to also take a field trip. Who doesn’t love a summer vacation with a field trip? It’s double the fun. My husband always talks about going to a potato chip factory when he was a little kid in school. In fact when our kids were growing up we referred to all of their school field trips as “going to the potato chip factory”. Although I think he might have made the whole thing up I’m hopeful you get the point – it’s a fun trip of discovery.

So anyway, I went to visit the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute (MWPAI) – it’s in Utica, N.Y and it’s a pretty interesting museum with a great backstory. In the collection at MWPAI is a series of four huge paintings by Thomas Cole that date from 1840, titled The Voyage of Life. As it turns out these paintings have a connection to our Henry Plant!

Henry and Margaret, newlyweds by three years, purchased this series in 1876. Each painting is 65” x 91” with massive ornate gold frames that are almost as stunning as the paintings. The Voyage of Life has a dedicated room in MWPAI. It’s been exhibited there and studied for years. The paintings represent the four stages of life, Childhood, Youth, Manhood and Old Age – all depicting a traveler being ferried down a river. The landscapes are delicately painted yet very powerful and are a wonderful representation of the early Hudson River School style.

The Voyage of Life, “Childhood”
The Voyage of Life, “Youth”
The Voyage of Life, “Manhood”
The Voyage of Life, “Old Age”

Henry was not an amateur collector or dilettante. He was well traveled and named ships in the Plant system after operas. He filled his hotels to the brim with Fine Art. One can only imagine the private collection of the Plants through the years. Which of course makes
 me curious about the fact that townhomes and apartments in the 1800’s were just not that large. We know that the Victorians really liked a lot of stuff, so it’s hard to imagine where and how the Plants displayed these large paintings in their private home. Did they have a dedicated room? What else was in their collection?

The Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute is very interesting in and of itself. Three generations of one Utica family, all avid collectors endowed the city of Utica in 1919 with funding for a community cultural organization. It has evolved into a cultural complex with a School of Art, Performing Arts Division and two Museums.

The original collection of decorative and fine art is housed in the Proctor’s Victorian home, which is called Fountain Elms. Very much in the way that our Plant Museum represents a Victorian lifestyle, Fountain Elms and the Proctor’s collection also provide a wonderful glimpse into the Victorian era. As the MWPAI collection expanded it outgrew the original home and so they commissioned the architect Phillip Johnson to design an expanded museum. Johnson designed a mid-century modern masterpiece that provides an interesting transition.

Pretty fun summer field trip I must say and don’t knock the potato chip factory experience – get out there and visit one today.



Breaking News…

Our “Spinning Girl” statue has a sister! She resides in Turner Falls, Massachusetts. She’s on a pedestal that’s placed outdoors in Spinners Park. I’m not sure why it surprises me that our “Girl” has a sibling, but it is kind of fun to know that there are more of her out there. 

Looking into the history of our gal got started when we had to move her. The sculpture itself weighs somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 lbs. so moving it gets your attention and it prompted me to start poking around. This is what I know at the moment. 

Spinning Girl in transit

An early Tampa Bay Hotel brochure from 1893-94 shows this statue in the main lobby and calls her “The Spinning Girl of the South of France”. That sounds very exotic doesn’t it? When I look at her I always wonder, whatever is she doing? I always thought maybe she was dancing or twirling, but then at other times I wondered if maybe she was fishing? 

Lobby, Tampa Bay Hotel 1893-94

In Turner Falls she is called “The Spinner” and it is understood that she is there to honor the industrial history of the region, especially the role of women in local factories perhaps with a nod to the textile industry. Their statue was purchased in the 1980s from the Robinson Iron Works Foundry in Alabama. Additional web searching revealed yet another casting (now they’re triplets!) which was titled ”La Fileuse de Procida”. This third sibling is a statue representing a spinner from an Italian village on the island of Procida. The Italian sister is definitely a spinner and not the dancing kind but rather a spinner of threads. 

The Spinner, Turner Falls

Although the foundry mark Fondu Maurice de Denonvilliers, is clear on our edition, the artist’s signature is only partial and so we were never able to determine who fashioned our girl. But with the help of our newly discovered sister we now have new and exciting information! The signature of the artist Louis-Léon Cugnot is clearly visible on the Turner Falls edition. 

Cugnot, a French sculptor, studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the 1850s. He won numerous awards including the first Grand Prix de Rome in 1859, along with many medals, including one from the Universal Exposition in Paris (Henry and Margaret Plant attended this exposition!). Cugnot is known for his allegorical work, so, then I wonder if maybe our girl might also be a representation of one of the three Fates – perhaps Clotho, who spins the threads of our days. 

After we moved her I gave the “Spinning Girl of the South of France” a bath and light wax and boy does she sparkle. I really hope she’s especially happy now knowing that she’s not alone. And I do know that Henry and Margaret Plant were on to something when they traveled to Europe, purchasing artwork for their new Hotel, because I’m here to tell you that the “Spinning Girl” definitely brightens my day. I remain hopeful that her threads will help keep me tethered for now. 

The Spinning Girl, the Henry Plant Museum 2021

Thanks for reading and please stay well.


Going Crackers!

These last few months have been something. Hard to believe another year has passed. Welcome to 2021, it’s about time it got here and I’m thinking it arrived not a minute too soon!

After the year we’ve had, maybe it’s a needed comfort thing, but I’m back looking at menus. Although really, I think that maybe I just might have a genetic predisposition to food related stuff. Recipes, cooking, ingredients, not to mention eating – it all runs deep in my family. Just this past Christmas I gave my children recipe boxes with a few old family favorites tucked inside to help get them started. So, maybe that’s why I have an interest (obsession?) with the Museum’s collection of hotel menus.

Tampa Bay Hotel Menu, January 25, 1903, HBPM Collection

I find myself looking for patterns, and I discovered an interesting thing about the TBH and Plant Line food offerings – in general it is fancy food with lots of sauces until a simple ingredient takes center stage or is served as a last act. Here is a brief observation of an evolution that might require more study – hmmm, I wonder if this could become a dissertation on the cracker.

1899- Crackers

1901- Crackers

1902- Toasted Crackers

1911- Saltines

1913- Hard Water Crackers

1921- Saltine Crackers

1932- Toasted Crackers

Menu from SS Olivette, September 24, 1902, HBPM Collection

Various menus also had other simple offerings. There were delicacies such as Kidney Beans (1903), Lettuce Hearts (1913), Stringless Beans (1903) (Stringless Beans?), Dry and Buttered Toast (1921), Cold Corn Starch Pudding (1913) and of course as noted in a previous post, lots and lots of celery.

This was a Luxury Resort Hotel with fancy chefs managing a large kitchen staff and still, like many of us, they felt a need to always have crackers and celery at the ready. I hope you’ll consider the value of a simple cracker because they’re pretty awesome. This Florida girl likes her Zesta crackers with Apalachicola oysters and a Bloody Mary (dressed with celery of course).

Until next time, don’t get crumbs in your facemask.

Thanks, Nora

Christmas is coming, the geese are getting fat…

Good grief it’s still a month to Halloween and here I am writing about Christmas. If I just happened upon this missive I’d probably hit delete, but I hope you don’t. 

The Victorian Christmas Stroll is the Henry Plant Museum’s largest fundraising event. This year we are celebrating our 39th year and man oh man what a year it’s been. We’ve had to pivot and swivel constantly for months. Both my hands and nerves are raw. All of us here are determined to keep our beautiful tradition alive and do it safely. So I hope you’ll keep reading this shameless promotion and maybe even learn a little about how it all comes together.

The Grand Hallway 2019, photo credit: Ian Foe.

Like most museums, closing in March really hit hard. It’s not like we sell a product on Amazon or have a take-out with Uber-eats. We maintain and share a cultural heritage that is unique to Central Florida and we want to share it with you. Even in the best of times that’s not a particularly easy thing to do but this year it’s been extra spicy.

Victorians loved the Christmas holiday and the magic of it all – so do we and because of that we take special pride in trying to make everything as authentic to the period as possible. In a typical year, planning for the Stroll begins in late spring with lots of staff meetings and impromptu gatherings that continue all summer and fall until the day the doors fly open in December. Every year is unique, rooms have themes, loans are secured, we fact check for accuracy and make sure stockings are hung and ribbons tied. The staff does it all and collaborates beautifully. We become designers, decorators, builders, crafters, electricians and model train engineers and then we rush to polish and fluff so we can open the doors to host a month-long party. YAY!  

This year, late spring brought the “thrill” of our first Zoom meetings. We continue having remote gatherings as we discuss how to keep visitors engaged as well as socially distanced and safe. The physical nature of bringing all of this together has always been daunting – this year will certainly be no exception. There will be timed entry with a limit on the number of visitors per time slot along with some amazing virtual experiences. While our planning might bring changes the overall tradition will continue.

You might enjoy viewing some of our behind the scene videos from previous installations. One I recommend is “Dogs Eye Pre-View,” or you can see a compilation of several installation videos here.

This cultural treasure is not going anywhere, it’s weathered pandemics and Yellow Fever and certainly no shortage of elections either. We’re here working to continue making our traditions available for you.  

Postcard from the HBPM archives.

And as to my shameless promotion – well here it is…

Please visit.

Become a member.


We would love to see you. 

Because really, we need you!

Please put a penny in the old man’s hat;

If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do.

Seasonal Vacuuming!

Thank you and stay healthy!  


Canicular Days

During these dog days of our pandemic summer here in Florida there are times I might feel Dead in the Water, Chock-a-Block or even Lolling in the Doldrums. And then at times I think maybe I should Batten Down the Hatches and Cut and Run!

Sorry about all the nautical terms but I’ve been filing archives and reading some entries in the Captain’s Log Book from the S.S. Mascotte. The Mascotte was a steamship of the Plant System. It was a beautiful streamlined vessel that sailed a twice-weekly route out of Port Tampa with a stop in Key West before then traveling on to Havana, Cuba – back and forth, back and forth.  

Plant Line Steamship S.S. Mascotte       

The ship might have had a tough crew at times. From the 1893 Log Book, Captain James Decker’s entries note contraband and smuggling in crews quarters, mostly tobacco, stowed away on the trip back from Cuba. One trip noted “Bread, Fish + Poltary [sic] of poor quality purchased fish at Key West.” “Poltary [sic] when cooked hard + dry + tough”. Seems like that’s a pretty strong culinary critique from Captain Decker, though perhaps he was just passing along comments from dissatisfied passengers.

Weather was an issue at times too – falling barometers, gale winds, cyclonic disturbances. Shifting sand bars and active tides could make navigating various channels very difficult. I’ve found that between navigating language standards of the time and nautical terminology the logs can be difficult. Capt. Decker mentions using “Rebecca” or traveled “via Rebecca”. At first I thought maybe there was a female crewmember or perhaps it was some kind of early version of a depth finder or navigational instrument. But with help from my pal the Internet, I figured out that out “Rebecca” is the coral shoal with lighthouse just past the Marquesas Keys, which are about twenty miles due west of Key West. Depending on the tides and weather, the route might have to be diverted around “Rebecca Shoals”.

It all sounds rather exciting, but mostly it was routine, fine weather, calm seas, back and forth, back and forth, though it seems they had their fun, too. The Mascotte’s sister ship was the Olivette. I love it when the entries say they blew their whistles at each other while passing on their respective voyages. The log entry shown here is about decorating the ship with all her bunting to commemorate its 600th voyage.

Ships log entry for S.S Mascotte
Dated Oct. 8, 1893

Thank you Captain Decker for this week’s distraction. Let’s hope going forward that we all can have a Clean Slate with Smooth Sailing, plenty of Fair Winds and a Following Sea.

I for one am ready to Splice the Mainbrace – hope you are too.

Thanks, Nora

Oh by the way, an artist’s rendition of the S.S. Mascotte graces the official seal for the City of Tampa. Another interpretation of the Mascotte can be seen on manhole covers throughout the city.

Just Snooping Around

This morning I was working on our once a year random object inventory that’s required by the department that keeps track of all stuff. Because of “social distancing” I have been asked to find the object, cross check it, and take a picture of it in its location. It’s as if I’m both the resident bean counter and the resident documentarian.

So, I go on a hunt for the specific object. It’s pretty easy to do when you are familiar with the pieces. In museum registration nomenclature there are specific categories, sub categories, object descriptions and information on current location. For example we have a Chairs category and then also Chairs: Teak & Marble (of which there are about 40). All our artifacts are labeled discretely with very specific numbers that are tracked on our database. Because of where the numbers are placed on the object, tracking down a piece and then confirming that it’s the actual one you’re looking for is where it gets fun. It’s sort of like Sherlock Holmes playing Twister after a yoga class. I love to see things from different perspectives; it’s one of the best parts of my job, crawling around looking under, over, in, out, all with my handy magnifier and flashlight. I see things that only a few have noticed. My happy little adventures.

One time I was checking a Chinese bottleneck vase and heard a rattle. With a flashlight and a tiny hooked wire I pulled out a Baby Ruth candy wrapper. A little quick online snooping dated the wrapper from the 1930s. It’s funny to find some 90-year-old litter. Could it be we haven’t really evolved much in the last century – I mean didn’t we bicker about masks in the 1918 pandemic, too?

Original Baby Ruth Candy Bar Wrapper
Circa 1930

So this week you might find me curled in a ball under a table. No, I’m not social distancing in a fetal position (thanks 2020!) or curled up for a nap in a hidey-hole. I’m just enjoying an alternate perspective.

Stay well, stay limber and keep looking for new perspectives – you never know what you’ll find.



P.S.  The Baby Ruth wrapper – litter from nearly a century ago – while the department that keeps track of all stuff hasn’t yet added it to the list, please don’t be concerned, I know right where it is.

Oh Margaret!

Our museum collection is so varied. High art, low art, hotel art, furnishings, decorations. Victorians loved it all. Even the art picture books from the Paris Exposition of 1889 were beautiful etchings reproduced on silk or fine papers bound together. I would love to frame them all. Henry and Margaret Plant had a keen eye, no doubt – there are some jewels here and the revelations continue.

Every day I walk by a large framed print titled, Virtue Fit to Govern the World, a 17th century engraving based on the painting; Alexander the Great by Charles Le Brun, and I’ve just discovered how rare this print is. 

Henry Plant Museum West Hall, 2020

While the Tampa Bay Hotel was being built, I tend to think the interior design and decorating fell on Margaret’s shoulders. Henry seemed awfully busy with other stuff. For example take their famous trip to Europe in 1889, I mean he had to raise the flag on the Eiffel Tower and of course there was all of that shoulder rubbing with the hob nobs. Meanwhile, on that same trip I think Margaret was on an extended shopping spree, or “a European buying expedition” as they say, bringing back “forty four trainloads of furnishings” all for the Tampa Bay Hotel.

Margaret Plant in her office, 1893

From the timeline that I’ve seen, this buying expedition only lasted about two months – how in the world? I suspect Margaret might have had some help. Was there a designer or decorator at her side? What about impulse buys? Was someone there to hold her handbag? Sensible shoes? I love to shop, don’t get me wrong. I once spent 6 straight hours in a mall with 15 nine-year-old girls! To be clear, I can’t say this makes me proud, but somehow I survived. Man, my feet hurt.

Oh Margaret – you and Henry continue to surprise us – all those years ago and here we are, still studying your history. And if you think about it, has there really ever been a better time to participate in studying history.

Thank you for wearing those masks!


Thanks for Writing!

Nowadays someone has something to say about everything – publicly. Back in the time of the Tampa Bay Hotel, reviews were in the form of letters and postcards home. These little snippets expose a glimpse in time and we’re fortunate to have a collection of this correspondence in our archives. All are hand written in beautiful script with pen and ink. Many reference what’s going on at home or they talk about the grounds and the magnificent building. Of course almost all mention the weather. It’s interesting that there’s very little about the quality of the experience or even the staffing – perhaps it wasn’t really polite to mention that sort of a thing.

HBPM archives
January 26, 1908

You may have seen the museum’s Facebook postings of our staff discussing some of these beautiful postcards.  

Watching them got me wondering what a 21st century review of the Tampa Bay Hotel might sound like. So, with a little plagiarizing from actual Yelp reviews – here goes…

Rating : undefinedundefinedundefinedundefinedundefined

My stay at the Tampa Bay Hotel was life changing. This is by far the nicest hotel I have ever stay at in my life. I had high expectations and it delivered. The customer service never stopped to impress me. From day one, chocolates were laid on my pillow at night and my room and bathroom were spotless and always smelled very nice. Room service was delicious and served right on time. Go early to the pool to get a good spot, it gets crowded. Towels are always ready and a cool drink to enjoy by the river. The amazing gardens are a sight to behold. They have a first rate golf course and you can sign up for lessons with a tennis pro. The Dining Hall boasts excellent world-renowned chefs and be sure to try the pastries, they are to die for. This hotel has so many amenities it’s hard to take advantage of them all in one trip. I look forward to visiting again in the near future. I would definitely recommend this hotel to anyone looking for a first class experience.

HBPM archives
January 26, 1908

Or like this postcard, your review could always just say; ” Nothing to it down here only climate which is fine now”.

Stay well and put a chocolate on the pillow tonight, you deserve a vacation.



Take a closer look…

We get a lot of repeat questions from visitors to the museum. Basic things like where do I start, where is the restroom, are there ghosts, do you have a favorite object? Some of these questions are easy to answer, some not so much.  

I’d like to think there are ghosts, but of course they’d be friendly spirits, maybe the ghosts of Henry and Margaret Plant, nodding and approving everything we do. As for my favorite objects, I have so many, though sometimes it’s just the way the light falls. There is a bucolic painting in the Reading and Writing room and at certain times of year the light reflects so perfectly that a simple hay wagon takes my breath away. I have dragged people in to see it only to have a “Gee, that’s nice” reaction. Of course the ghosts of Henry and Margaret Plant are blown away.

Today I was alone in the museum working in the garden room, dusting the ceramic stools and I had to laugh out loud.  

Garden Seat
Late 19th Century
Chinese, Qina Dynasty
Height: 22in.
Garden Seat

I had been thinking about the Covid-19 quarantine, and all of the disinfecting that we are doing now. Wash, rinse, and repeat, over and over. I look up and right in front of my nose is a Mudman handing me a bar of soap! Chinese Mudmen are brightly glazed figurines of wise men or sages frequently holding objects of mystical importance or sometimes they’re just fishing.

Henry, Margaret and I got a good giggle out of that, mystical importance indeed!

Maybe I’m losing it during this quarantine, but the little figure is a reminder to me, past to present, we’re going to be okay and hopefully we’ll all be fishing soon!

Stay safe, wash your hands and remember to brighten the corner where you are.