By MARCUS MITCHELL
I have lived here for over 100 years but it seems that nobody knows who I am anymore. Sure,I’ll get the occasional visitor here and there and some will even sit and have a sub with me, but usually they’ll just grab a quick coffee and head off to their class or back to their dorm. I haven’t been this lonely in a long time. Back in the day, people hung out with me every night, telling stories and having fun. Now, I don’t get a single guest once the sun sets and I spend my weekends alone in the dark. I’ve had a lot of names in my life but to my friends I am The Rathskeller.
My friends have long departed though. Some have simply graduated, but my oldest have well passed away. It’s been a long life and I’m still standing, but my future seems like it will never be as great as my past.
I was born in 1888 in the basement of the Tampa Bay Hotel. By 1891 I was full-functioning and served as one of the favorite places for guests to hang out when they stayed at the hotel. I had billiard tables and even a barbershop for patrons. But above all else, I was a bar and I was loved. Every night, guests would raise their glasses and chug their beers in celebration.
Oh, those were the good ole days. I rubbed elbows with some real celebrities back then. Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill and even Babe Ruth visited the hotel. But the man I remember most was a colonel named Teddy Roosevelt. For, you see, the Spanish-American War broke out when I was just 10 years old and the hotel was made into a base of operations. So after strategizing during the day, Teddy and his “Rough Riders” would come downstairs, enjoy a beer and tell war stories. It was one of my favorite moments from my younger days.
But sooner or later, the good times start to end. In 1930, the Great Depression hit and folks just stopped visiting the hotel. It ended up closing, and for three long years nobody visited. My once filled bar was empty and lifeless. The pool tables had been removed and the electricity cut; the only source of light was when sunlight filtered in through the windows.
I thought it’d be like that for the rest of my life until the Tampa Bay Junior College moved in and turned the hotel guestrooms into classrooms. Suddenly the quiet was replaced with professor’s lectures and student chatter. After moving in, the Tampa Bay Junior College expanded and became the University of Tampa, but despite all the excitement in the hotel, I was still empty.
Then in 1967 my doors finally opened. In walked these guys talking about “coffeehouses” and I had no idea what that was but I was excited. They cleaned me up and painted my walls in red and black. Cable wire spools were brought in as tables and they hung these psychedelic posters everywhere. I felt brand new.
Those next 10 years felt like a blur. Students would play on pinball machines and read poetry every night. And on the nights they weren’t showing movies, they had live bands and performers that packed the house.
I had a lot of names back then. Thee Place, The Underground, The Amerika. They even just called me The Coffee House at one point. But even though my name changed, my popularity didn’t. Whether it was coming in for a pastry between classes or some late-night espresso, students couldn’t get enough of me. It was an easygoing time back then and it certainly didn’t prepare me for what I was in store for.
In the mid-1970’s alcohol was a big topic of discussion for UT. The drinking age was only 18 at the time and students wanted to know why they couldn’t drink in their dorms. It wasn’t long before my bar reopened and mugs of beer started sliding across my counters. My once painted walls were replaced with bricks and I was redesigned to look like a German pub.
Thanks to $30,000 from the senior class, I opened in 1972 with a new look and a new name: The Rathskeller. After that moment, I became the most sought after venue at UT. Organizations, fraternities and sororities rushed to book events with me and every sports team celebrated their wins with me and a beverage. If you thought alcohol was a big deal now, then you should’ve seen the students back then
Everything seemed to revolve around alcohol once the 80s hit. Parents Weekend was finished with a trip to Happy Hour, Halloween costume party winners were awarded a six pack of Cold Duck and even the can food drives had a keg of beer as the grand prize. And don’t even get me started on how wild the students got when mugs were only 25 cents for Oktoberfest.
As long as the students were safe and responsible, I didn’t mind becoming popular as a bar. By serving beer on campus through me, the school didn’t have to worry about drunk driving and off-campus altercations as much. It seemed perfect.
But it certainly didn’t come without its drawbacks. Fights were common during those days and it was nothing for students to bust each other up just because they looked at each other funny. I was vandalized from time to time but there were always other students there to clean me up.
That pattern went on for a few years. During the day, faculty and students would swing by for a cold one after a tough exam and, when the sun set, people flooded in to watch a football game on my mounted television or just to enjoy some beer and some wings. Students were both bartenders and waitresses and I became just as “cool” as the bars in Tampa.
Then everything came to a halt in 1986 when the drinking age rose to 21. Suddenly, we all had to be very careful of who let drink alcohol and we checked I.D.’s closer than ever. That caused some students to go out to the more “lenient” bars to get their fix. It was still fine for those of age to come and grab a beer, but there was a divide felt between those who were 21 and those who weren’t.
The 90’s hit hard because of this and less and less students started coming in. There were still plenty of events held, but gone were the days of the football team drinking away a bad loss and the throngs of students coming in for Happy Hour faded. My neon sign was busted in and although it was soon replaced, I just didn’t feel like my old self anymore.
In 1999, a Starbucks moved in and year by year I started closing earlier and earlier. Soon I stopped serving alcohol altogether and my title of a “pub” began to vanish. My pool tables and my tv were eventually moved out and now I am just a ghost of what I used to be.
If you visit me now you’ll see just how lonely I am. Where my bar once stood, broken shelves and old kitchen equipment sits. But please visit anyway. Come sit in one of the old barstools and just tell me a story. Even if it is just for a quick bite to eat, I hope you come and sit where my friends sat over 100 years ago. My name is The Rathskeller and I’m still open for business.