Nootchie, the hall monitor
A charter Chiseler takes care of Plant Hall, the old Tampa Bay Hotel, as if it were her own. And why not? It's like a dear relative.
By Amy Scherzer
Published March 10, 2006
||IF YOU GO
The 43rd annual Chiselers' Market runs from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the University of Tampa, 401 E Kennedy Blvd. Buy bargain kitchenware, electrical items, tools, furniture, books, toys, china, crystal, silver, collectibles, clothing, jewelry, art, plants and more. All proceeds will help restore the 1891 Tampa Bay Hotel Plant Hall. For information, go to www.chiselers.org.
DOWNTOWN - Sylvia "Nootchie" Smith romped in the lobby at Plant Hall and hid from her nanny in the library. She raced up the grand staircase and marched behind the ROTC students.
Sixty years ago, the 511-room palace and University of Tampa campus were her playground.
Today, she oversees million-dollar restoration projects at the school as vice president of the Chiselers, watching over the 1891 Tampa Bay Hotel as if it were her own.
"Eloise had the Plaza and I had the Tampa Bay Hotel," Smith said, referring to the mischievous literary icon who lived in the classy New York hotel.
Smith's family lived at the Embassy Apartments on N Brevard Avenue, now the Vaughn Center, from 1942 to 1948. Her grandparents, Manuel and Angeles Corral, makers of the Bering cigar, and three of her mother's sisters lived there, too.
"All the action was around Plant Hall," Smith said, remembering movies at Park Theater (now the Falk Theatre), galas at McKay Auditorium (now John Sykes College of Business), and Gasparilla parades at the fairgrounds, now UT's athletic fields. Her mother, Sylvia Corral Vega, was Gasparilla queen in 1932. Her father, lawyer Milo Vega, was Gasparilla king in 1958.
Next month, Smith will sign off on the Chiselers' biggest endeavor yet: a $812,000 brick repointing and window rebuilding project. Crews are replacing crumbling mortar between bricks and restoring 160 windows.
Half the money came from a $400,000 Save America's Treasures grant from the National Park Service. The Chiselers matched it by raising money staging fashion shows, selling Christmas ornaments, publishing a cookbook, and organizing their 43rd annual Chiselers' Market, which takes place Saturday. It's known as Tampa's largest one-day flea market. Market proceeds, plus money raised at a preview cocktail party tonight, should reach $150,000.
In 47 years, the Chiselers have donated more than $3-million to restore Plant Hall. Projects grew from small decorating upgrades to major restoration projects. Among them:
- $144,000 to restore six pairs of carved Cuban mahogany doors.
- $50,000 to add to a $316,000 state grant for foundation and veranda repairs.
- $90,000 to have silk moire drapes, copied from archival photos, made for the Grand Salon.
This summer, the volunteer group will donate $250,000 to recarpet, refinish the doors and purchase new light fixtures for the first floor of Plant Hall.
Smith's connection to the university goes even deeper.
Her father suffered a stroke at a board of trustees meeting and died two days later. He had been defending the football program, which was subsequently eliminated. Her mother was appointed to take his seat, becoming the first woman on the board.
Her brother, Milo, called Mio, was a member of UT's Board of Fellows and supported the school's rowing program as founder of the Tampa Rowing Club. He died of a heart attack while rowing on the Hillsborough River at age 56.
"They both died doing something they loved," Smith said.
Smith, 64, was in high school when her mother's sister, Bertha Corral Fletcher, became the first president of the Chiselers in 1959. A group of women scraped old paint and mortar off fireplace tiles to reinstall in the historic hotel. Calling themselves a "bunch of chiselers," they incorporated to continue the maintenance projects. Her mother was a charter Chiseler.
Fletcher Lounge, originally the hotel dining room, is named after Smith's aunt.
Smith graduated from Barry University in Miami and married lawyer Vance Smith, whom she has known since they were in kindergarten at the Seaborn School on Davis Islands. The couple have three sons, C. Vance, 35, Layton, 31, and Cam, 28, bachelors she calls "unclaimed treasures."
Through various careers - teacher, gift shop owner and food distributor - and family duties, Smith made preservation a priority. Her resume is packed with board positions, including president of the H.B. Plant Museum board of trustees and the Museum Society. She has served on the Tampa Bay Hotel Advisory Council since its inception 10 years ago. As president of Tampa Preservation Inc. in 1981, she established the Preservation Banner awards, and local efforts landed her on the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation for 10 years, including president in 1995-96.
"She sees what needs to be done and finds a way to make it happen," said Becky Clarke, executive director of Tampa Preservation Inc.
Smith knows exactly what to do at the Chiselers' Market. She'll be selling plants on the veranda.
Anything to make money for her beloved second home.
- Amy Scherzer can be reached at email@example.com or 226-3332. Nootchie Smith
HOME: Beach Park
FAMILY: Husband Vance, whom she met in kindergarten at the Seaborn school; three adult sons.
NICKNAME: Her dad called her Baby Snooks, after the popular radio show character. A family friend heard her pronunciation and wrote it down as "Nootchie."
ULTIMATE FOODIE: Goes to bed reading cookbooks. She's famous for her gourmet picadillo made with almonds, olives, capers and raisins.
FREE TIME: Fly fishes, reads anything by Nero Wolfe and buys Tampa Bay Hotel memorabilia on eBay.
FIRST PRESERVATION ACT: Rescued stained-glass windows at the University of Cincinnati while earning a master's degree in education.
[Last modified March 10, 2006, 16:03:47]
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