A courthouse is transformed into an architectural gem.
Story by Rod Charles
TAMPA BAY, FLORIDA — It isn’t difficult for me to spot the landmark building in Tampa’s downtown where I will be enjoying breakfast.
From 1905 to the day it became abandoned in 1999 this building served as the courthouse (the new courthouse moved two blocks down the road to Florida Avenue). For 15 years it sat abandoned before an extensive two-year, $25-million renovation. The hotel reopened in 2014, turning Tampa Bay’s former Beaux Arts-style federal courthouse into a unique boutique hotel.
The renovation earned Le Méridien Tampa honours from both Condé Nast Traveler and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. A part of the National Register of Historic Places, Le Méridien Hotel is an architectural gem in the heart of Tampa Bay. It wasn’t always so.
I’m having breakfast at the elegant Bizou Brasserie, located on the second floor of the hotel. Billing itself as a place to kick off a great evening in downtown Tampa or wind down after a night out, Bizou (meaning “kiss” in French) is a French-style restaurant that seems right at home in this hotel. I order the Mushroom Egg White Omelette ($12) with gruyere cheese and spinach prepared with egg whites, cooked masterfully by Bizou Brasserie Tampa executive chef Brian Lairby, along with a cup of Illy coffee. For those who prefer to eat quickly, there is an array of muffins, croissants and eclairs that are also available in the restaurant.
After breakfast it’s off for a tour. There are times when finding a hotel is simply about deciding on the cheapest or most extravagant place — everyone has their preference. That said there are special hotels that have history and if you love architecture and seeing the impact of urban rejuvenation Le Méridien is one hotel you need to visit.
What makes Le Méridien fascinating is how the renovators managed to create a warm, bold and welcoming space in a building that was a cold, sullen location that dispensed hard justice. Let’s face it, nobody really enjoys going to court and most people who do aren’t going by choice. There is evidence, pardon the pun, of that history dotted throughout the building. Nowhere is that more clear than the 4,000 square feet of conference space that once served as a courtroom.
“The old courtroom on the fourth floor where all of the trials were held has been beautifully transformed into a very elegant ball room for social functions and meetings,” says Mike Falconer, director of sales and marketing for Le Meridien.
Great care has been made to make this building as authentic as possible. While certain things had to change to keep the building to code you can still see many of the original door and window frames. On the glass of one wooden door in the ice room reads, “Civil Intake Office Hours 9:00 – 4:30.” What were once judges chambers and courtrooms in this historic Federal Courthouse Building are now guest accommodations and each one of the hotels 130 guest rooms and suites is still unique.
The pool is another interesting area, with an iron door at one end. There was a time when a police truck would have rolled in through gates such as these with a handcuffed prisoner inside for processing. They would have been removed and placed into holding cells before being taken to the fourth floor to face the judge. These former holding cells now serve as elegant rooms overlooking the pool.
“We have many repeat offenders, sorry, I mean guests and business travellers that will sometimes request to be put in a jail cell room, which is what they call it,” says Falconer.
With more than 130 well-appointed and modern guest rooms (including 105 king rooms and one king executive suite), each room features a desk and work station, mini cooler, and air conditioning. Completing each room is a glass bathroom with central floating washbasin and shower.