The Fort Harrison: Its Heritage and Tradition
A history of gracious living brought to life in photo display and booklet
The women sat under the shade of a large, white umbrella. Wide-brimmed hats protected their fair skin from the sun’s heat. How they managed to look so cool and comfortable in those long dresses over layers of slips and petticoats we may never know.
That 1932 image taken of visitors to the Fort Harrison in a simpler time was one of the many photographs on display as part of the Fort Harrison’s 75th Anniversary open house. It and many other historical photographs were also captured in a booklet, “The Fort Harrison: Celebrating 75 Years of Heritage and Tradition.”
The historical display and booklet both highlight each succeeding decade, marking the different eras of the hotel’s 75 years, beginning with its construction in Florida’s boom years during the 1920s.
In 1925, Florida’s population was 75,000—a third of whom were said to be real estate agents. The population of cities throughout Florida was growing faster than the existing infrastructures could handle. For example, Miami’s population was growing so fast that officials there took measures to avert famine. There were frequent ice shortages and public utilities were hard pressed to keep up the demand for electricity, gas and phone service. Real estate advertising in the local Miami Daily News swelled to 504 pages.
Clearwater was seeing a similar boom, with accommodations at a premium. The city needed a large, luxury hotel in the heart of downtown.
Through the careful planning and financing of Ed Haley, construction of the Fort Harrison began in 1925. Over the next year and a half, the local newspaper ran stories about the hotel’s progress. Large ads placed in the same paper informed locals about the large amount of new residents that the project was bringing to the town—including skilled construction workers, plumbers and electricians.
The Fort Harrison officially opened in December of 1926 with a large dinner and dance in what would become the Crystal Ballroom. From that point forward, it became a social and cultural center for Clearwater. Most recently, the Fort Harrison has again become a popular location for weddings receptions, banquets and other special events. In addition to the renovated and restored Crystal Ballroom and Auditorium, the gardens and poolside pavilion are also popular venues for these occasions.
The photographic history also highlights the World War II era in Clearwater. The Fort Harrison billeted the 588th Army Airborne Squadron, but soldiers from all over the country stayed there while receiving military training. In seeing the photos, one can almost hear the echo of the soldier’s feet as they ran off to muster in front of the Pinellas County Courthouse in the early hours of the morning.
The post-war years through the 1950s marked an era of growth and prosperity for Florida’s west coast, including Clearwater. In response to a development boom, U.S. Highway 19 leading into Clearwater from the north was widened, and in 1954 the Sunshine Skyway was constructed, an engineering marvel of a bridge creating another link to the city from the outside world.
It was also during this time in the 1950s that the Fort Harrison was the springtime home of the Philadelphia Phillies.
The hotel, then run by the Jack Tar Corporation, would undergo many changes and modernizations over the next 15 years, and by the 1960s it was being touted as a major convention center and a “Brilliantly Modern Motor Hotel.”
As described in the informative booklet, the Fort Harrison also played in the history of rock’n’roll (Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones wrote the rock classic “Satisfaction” while staying there in 1965) and the beginnings of the Clearwater Jazz Holiday (jazz greats such as Duke Ellington and Count Basie performed in the hotel during the early 1970s).
But into the 1970s, new housing developments and shopping malls on the city’s outskirts drew people from the city center and the pace of life in downtown Clearwater slowed. The Fort Harrison was not surviving as a commercial hotel and its owners decided to sell it off.
The building, purchased by the Church of Scientology in 1975, has since been restored to its original grandeur and beyond. While originally serving as the base of the Church’s international religious retreat, facilities are now once again open to the public, continuing its tradition as a valuable community asset.
The display and booklet—“The Fort Harrison: Celebrating Seventy-Five years of Heritage and Tradition”—commemorates in pictures and words the history of this Clearwater landmark, which mirrors the very history of the city.
The Clearwater and Pinellas County Historical Societies, the Tampa Library and local residents provided stories and photos for this 20 page publication. A limited number of copies are available at no cost by writing to Downtown Relations Director, 503 Cleveland St., Clearwater, Florida, 33755.