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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2017 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved. 


 

February 10, 2012  RSS feed
Culture

Text: T T T

MLK, JFK, Elvis and Hulk – all shared Armory spotlight


Armory grounds still house military trucks. The building was dedicated the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked. Armory grounds still house military trucks. The building was dedicated the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked. There are few places in Tampa with a history as rich as that of the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

President John F. Kennedy addressed the Florida Chamber of Commerce there just four days before he was assassinated in Dallas. The president told a crowd of about 4,500 “whether we work in the White House or the State House, or in the house of industry or commerce, mankind is our business,” according to a story last year by Rodney Kite- Powell, the curator of history at the Tampa Bay History Center.

Two years before, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke there in 1961, encouraging listeners to join the struggle for racial equality.

For years, if top musical acts came to the Tampa Bay area, they played at the armory. In 1955 Elvis Presley performed there, not as a headliner but as part of Hank Snow’s multi-act musical review. A photo from an Elvis performance there wound up on the cover of his first album. Others performing there include Jimmy Reeves, Nat King Cole, Buddy Holly, James Brown, TV star Andy Griffith, The Doors (after Jim Morrison had died), Steppenwolf, Pink Floyd and REO Speedwagon.

Televised professional wrestling was also broadcast from the armory. From the ‘60s and into the ’80s, Gordon Solie would announce matches from around the state, including many at the armory. Dusty Rhodes and Hulk Hogan were among the more popular stars to wrestle at the armory.

For all the entertainment it provided, the armory opened with the nation in a somber mood.

Built with $361,880 in Works Progress Administration funds as a New Deal project, the armory was dedicated on Dec. 8, 1941, the day after Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, leading the United States into World War II. It served as the headquarters for the 3rd Air Force during World War II, then became home to the Florida National Guard, which still maintains a presence there.

The armory was named in honor of Col. Homer W. Hesterly, who helped organize the 116th Field Artillery, mustered into service in Tampa in 1921.

The site of the armory was steeped in history long before the building was constructed. In 1896 the land was donated to the city of West Tampa for use as a park by George Benjamin, one of that town’s founders. It became known as Benjamin Field and two years later, in the summer of 1898, Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders camped out there before embarking for Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War. A historical marker on the property recognizes that event.

About a decade later, the land became an airfield and one of the first night flights in aviation history took place there.

During the 1920s, the field was home to many boxing matches at a wooden arena built there.

Jack Ross, executive director of the JCC, says the Jewish community is well aware of the history of the armory. “They are not just aware of it; for many, they lived it,” he said. If the project to transform the site into a JCC South Campus succeeds, he said something will likely be done to give recognition to the building’s rich history, but it is too soon to know what that will be.

Information from www.tampapix.com/ homerhesterlyarmory.htm and www.scottymoore.net/FtHomer.html was used in this report.


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