Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, 522 N. Howard Avenue, Tampa

 


George Nelson Benjamin, a native of Indiana, was the 2nd mayor of West Tampa, serving from 1897-1901 after West Tampa's first mayor, Fernando Figueredo. Benjamin came to Tampa in 1875 and was a leading West Tampa developer, bringing in cigar factories and donating land for a park which became the eventual site for Fort Homer Hesterly Armory.

 

Benjamin donated land to the city of West Tampa in 1896 for use as a park. During the summer of 1898, Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders used Benjamin's open land as their campsite in the days leading up to the Spanish-American War. The space later came to be known as Benjamin Field. In the early 1910s, Benjamin Field became an airfield. Aviation was still in its infancy, and pioneering pilots like Lincoln Beachey participated in several air meets at the field — and accomplished one of the first night flights in aviation history at that site.

During the 1920s, a wooden boxing arena was constructed at Benjamin Field. Matches were held there on a regular basis.


L to R:  Mess hall, Officers quarters & guard house of the Florida National Guard at Benjamin Field, 1920


Florida National Guard at Benjamin Field, Howard Ave. at Cass St, 1922
Click to see full size

In 1922, the city of Tampa and Hillsborough County donated the land to the Florida National Guard. The 116th Field Artillery unit of the Florida National Guard used Benjamin Field as its home base, but the need for a large facility to house the men and armaments continued to grow. Construction of two brick buildings, through the Civil Works Administration (CWA), provided some room for the 116th, but a larger structure proved necessary.

On Aug. 26, 1938, funding through the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in the amount of $270,730 was approved for the construction of the main armory building, followed by another allotment of $91,150 on Dec. 23, 1940

Construction of the armory began in 1938. The armory was completed in 1941, dedicated and named for Lt. Col. Homer Wynne Hesterly on Dec. 8, 1941 (the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor) and served the 116th Field Artillery Battalion of the National Guard. It was also the headquarters of the 53rd Infantry Brigade from the late 1960s to 2004, when the brigade moved to Pinellas Park. Tactical Air Command established its first headquarters in Tampa at Fort Homer Hesterly Armory in 1946, but soon moved to its permanent base to Langley Field, Virginia. 


Construction of the 116th Field Artillery Armory (Ft. Homer Hesterly Armory), July 25, 1940

In addition to providing arms storage, operations and drill space for the National Guard, the Armory served Tampa’s community as a venue for sporting events, social gatherings, speaking engagements and political events for over five decades. Continuing in the practice of a modern, community-centered national guard, the Armory hosted company dinners, community dances, and school recitals from the 1940s through the 1960s. The armory was a place for servicemen to bond; World War II veterans who remained active in the Guard often returned to the armory to share their war stories. Vacated by the national guard, plans were to redevelop the site with a hotel, day spa, farmers' market, restaurants, office space, artists' studios, and 5-acre park. The historic building will remain intact.

See photos of events pertaining to the armory and an excellent detail of the armory's history at:
 http://www.scottymoore.net/FtHomer.html

                             

 

Wrestling matches were also frequently held events at the Armory through the 1980s, and local legend states that professional wrestling in Florida was born at Fort Homer W. Hesterly.  Music concerts were another common event at the armory.

 

Elvis Presley performed there four times from 1955 to 1956. Billed as “Country Music’s Mr. Rhythm,” he appeared as the final act in country star Hank Snow’s All-Star Jamboree tour in 1955, starring Faron Young, the Carter Sisters, Slim Whitman, Bill & Scotty, and the Davis Sisters. Others who have performed here include Nat King Cole, Andy Griffith, Ferlin Husky and Marty Robbins.  In 1972, Pink Floyd, Spirit, Blue Oyster Cult, Big Brother And The Holding Company, and REO Speedwagon held concerts there.  Jim Morrison's "The Doors" performed there in 1974. President John F. Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. have given speeches there.

                The Armory is Hot Property      Dream For Armory Has Faded

 

 

 

Photos of the armory from the 1950s and 1960s show the inverted bell-like decoration that sat upon the central tower.  It appeared to be constructed of iron bars and at night it was lit up from the inside.

 

 

Rough Riders Encampment
June, 1898

At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, this area, a sand flat without a tree, but surrounded by forest, was the camp site of Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders, the most unusual regiment in the history of the U.S. Army.

The Rough Riders (1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment), 1,200 strong, included cowboys, Indians, polo players, ranchers, hunters, socialites, lawmen, trappers, et al.  This hodge-podge group left Tampa to fight in the hills of Cuba for their belief that "All Men Should Be Free."  Teddy and his horsemen became a legend in their own time.

   

 

 

Hesterly was a prominent Tampa citizen, recognized for his long and distinguished military career, business interests and civic involvement. He was proprietor and President of the Turner Marble and Granite Company from the 1930s to 1950, (founded in 1908 by H.G. Turner an his brother, A.O. Turner) and president of the First Federal Savings and Loan Association. The Turner Marble and Granite Company was a well-established supplier of marble, granite, building stone and mosaic tiles. They provided the materials for many monuments and mausoleums in the Tampa Bay area, throughout Florida and in other parts of the country.

Hesterly passed away in Tampa on Dec. 15, 1957 and was buried in Myrtle Hill Cemetery, Tampa.  Though he and his wife Claire had no children, he still has kin in the Tampa area who are descendants of his sister, Addie Hesterly Turner.

Homer Wynne Hesterly

Homer W. Hesterly, son of Vancouver Bartow Hesterly and Lena K. Hancock, was born on Nov. 16, 1889 in Villa Rica, Georgia. He graduated as a civil engineer from Georgia Tech in 1910 and began his military career at Tech. He registered for duty in WW1 while he was living at 7th Ave. and 26th St. in Tampa, and was called into service as a 1st Lt. Engr. on Sept. 2, 1917. He was stationed at American University Training Camp in Washington DC, Washington Bks, DC, and Hoboken, NJ before serving overseas in France from Dec. 4, 1917 to Aug. 20,1918, He was a member of the Sixth U.S. Engineers and among those who stopped the German breakthrough on the Somme in March 1918. He then returned to Humphreys, VA. He was promoted to Capt. on Nov. 7, 1919 and was honorably discharged on July 21, 1919.

Hesterly married Daisy Claire Hutchinson on Nov. 24, 1923 in Auburndale, Florida.  He returned to Tampa where he became active in the organization of the Florida National Guard. While doing this work, he advanced to the rank of Lt. Colonel. During the flood of 1926, he performed valuable service in the Lake Okeechobee district.

A terrible crime enraged the Tampa community in 1927. Five members of the Merrill family were murdered by a man named Benjamin Franklin Levins. A large mob formed outside the Hillsborough County Jail, intent on lynching the murderer. Some of the mob disarmed police and deputies trying to control the situation. The 116th Field Artillery was called out, with Col. Sumter L. Lowry and Col. Homer W. Hesterly in charge. The situation was described as "completely out of hand" when the troops arrived on the scene. Machine guns were put in place, even the mob had one. Shots were exchanged. The crowd finally became convinced the law meant business - and dissipated.

Hesterly was promoted to the rank of Colonel in 1934 and remained in active service to his country throughout his life. He was honored toward the close of 1941 when the new Florida State Armory at Tampa, Florida, was named Fort Homer Hesterly Armory. The 56th Field Artillery Brigade paraded to mark the outstanding occasion. Brigadier General Sumter L. Lowry delivered the principal address at the dedication ceremony on Dec. 8, 1941 (the day after the Pearl Harbor attack), and praised Col. Hesterly’s ability as an army officer.
   

 

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MORE West Tampa pages at Tampapix:
Albany Avenue
- See the orignal "Academy of the Holy Names" and cigar factories on Albany Ave.
Columbus Drive Bridge - The Gateway to West Tampa, Hillsborough River & Rivercrest Park
Fire Station No. 9 at Tampania and Chestnut St.
Fort Homer Hesterly Armory has showcased everything from NWA wrestling to JFK, Pink Floyd and Elvis.
George Guida house at MacFarlane Park - Once the home of "Mr. West Tampa"
Howard Avenue - Travel along Howard Ave. from Main St. to St. Louis St.
La Ideal Cafeteria at Tampa Bay Blvd. and Gomez Ave., a popular West Tampa landmark
La Teresita Grocery Store at Columbus Drive and Lincoln Ave.
MacFarlane Park - A favorite of West Tampans, named for the father of West Tampa
Raymond James Stadium - Home of the 2002 NFL Champions Tampa Bay Bucs and Super Bowl 43
Tampa Bay Blvd. Elementary School - Built in 1926 to educate cigar workers' children
West Tampa Little League Ball Park - Home of the 1970 Senior Little League World Champs
West Tampa History - The cigar that sparked a revolution, and Fernando Figueredo, West Tampa's first mayor.