Elena Cifuentes sits at a table in a warehouse near downtown Tampa, painstakingly restoring a broken Hummel figurine.
Cifuentes, who teaches at the University of Tampa, leads a restoration team whose work offers a mere glimpse into the massive volunteer undertaking behind the annual Chiselers Market.
The market features thousands of items that are sold to support the restoration and preservation of Plant Hall at the University of Tampa.
This year’s market offers items ranging from the funky to the sublime.
Bargain-hunters can find linens, intricate lace, crystal chandeliers, kitchenware, collectibles and thousands of other items.
The Chiselers Inc. — celebrating its 60th anniversary — puts on the annual sale. The group is made up of women volunteers, primarily from South Tampa, but also from Lutz, Wesley Chapel, West Chase, St. Petersburg, Sun City and other communities.
These women appear to have at least two things in common: A collective love for Plant Hall, and a true appreciation for the bond they have with each other.
The National Historic Landmark that their work benefits was completed in 1891.
In the beginning, it was an opulent hotel constructed by railroad magnate Henry B. Plant.
With European artworks and furnishings, it attracted wealthy and famous patrons to Tampa.
Its distinctive minarets, its chrysanthemum windows, its spacious veranda and its gingerbread woodwork make the building a true city of Tampa treasure.
The former Tampa Bay Hotel served as a command post in the Spanish-American War, and Teddy Roosevelt, Clara Barton, Stephen Crane and Frederic Remington stayed there.
Other famous guests have included Babe Ruth and Thomas Edison. John Phillip Sousa performed there, and Booker T. Washington spoke there, too.
The structure became home of the University of Tampa in 1933.
The Chiselers have the annual market down to a science.
Preparations begin months in advance.
Donations are brought to a warehouse near downtown Tampa, where they are sorted, repaired (if needed), priced and boxed — for delivery to the University of Tampa for a preview party and market day.
When donations initially arrive at the warehouse, they are divided into different sections. Furniture goes into one area. Collectibles into another. There are areas for books, for art, for fine linens and bargains. There’s a silent auction area, too.
Teri Willis, third vice president of the Chiselers, is this year’s market chair.
A trip around the warehouse reveals a huge assortment of items awaiting this year’s shoppers.
If you need a picture frame, you’ll be able to choose from hundreds.
There’s interesting art, too.
“Much of it is collectible art, recognized artists,” Willis said.
On the day of the sale, the art is arranged out on Plant Hall’s veranda.
“It’s a beautiful morning thing to do — to go out and buy art,” Willis said.
If you’re shopping for office supplies, Christmas décor or a dog bed — they’ll be at this year’s sale. There are lamps, sofas, chairs, planters and all sorts of other stuff, too.
The laces and linens are exquisite, Willis said. “Some of these laces have been passed down in families for generations.”
There’s a silver service section, too.
“It’s one of our highlights. When they light it up, it just sparkles,” Willis said. The gleam comes from the volunteers’ all-day silver polishing parties.
“That’s where I learned to really polish silver,” said Esther Hammer, this year’s president of The Chiselers.
Hammer has handled various chores through the years. Being president, she said, is easy because so many members step forward to help.
“I don’t really have to do anything because these people volunteer to do it, and they do such a great job,” Hammer said.
Moira Burke, who was at the warehouse sorting books said she enjoys having a hand in the preservation of Plant Hall — a building she considers to be an architectural gem.
Terri Naylor, who helps research and price collectibles, said being involved in Chiselers is right up her alley because she’s interested in art, architecture, history and preservation.
On market day, besides the sale items, there will be food trucks, Port-o-Potties, and a ‘Will Call’ area for shoppers who have found so many good deals that they need a temporary holding place while they go and shop for more.
They’ll have plenty of choices, Willis said.
“We take over the whole bottom floor (of Plant Hall). We fill it up.
“Outside, we have books, furniture, plants and art,” she said.
The bargain area is especially popular, Hammer said.
Items are priced to sell quickly and market regulars know the drill.
“This is where people stampede,” Hammer said. “When the doors open at 9, you can hear the thunder of the feet, going down to the bargain section.”
Willis noted: “They get excited, and we get excited.”
The volunteer group is grateful for the generous donations it receives.
“We couldn’t do this without the community,” Willis said.
The market’s success also relies on a good turnout for the sale, Hammer said.
“We have so much to sell, we need people (to come to the market).”
Beyond helping to preserve a Tampa icon for future generations, Hammer derives great satisfaction from being involved with the Chiselers.
“I just love this, this whole operation, this whole organization,” Hammer said.
“The mission is the first thing that got me in here, and then working with the ladies is what kept me,” she said.
56th annual Chiselers Market
Where: Plant Hall at the University of Tampa, 401 E. Kennedy Blvd., Tampa
When: March 16, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Cost: Free admission; parking nearby
Details: Bargain-hunters can finds loads of good deals at this sale, which features plants, jewelry, kitchenware, books, art, electrical items, tools, china, crystal, silver, collectibles, lamps, lace, linens, furniture and other items.
A group of friends with a strong interest in the preservation of the former Tampa Bay Hotel (now Plant Hall at the University of Tampa) met to chisel old mortar from important tiles salvaged from the original fireplaces in the hotel.
As a result, the “Chiselers” organization was founded with a mission to preserve and restore the former hotel, now a National Historic Landmark.
The Chiselers formed in 1959, and the group is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.
Since its founding, the organization has:
- Raised $8.3 million for the restoration of Plant Hall
- Supported the University of Tampa with an endowed scholarship that provides financial assistance each year to a deserving student
- Contributes about 15,000 volunteer hours each year
- Co-founded the Tampa Bay Hotel Advisory Council in 1996, charged with approving a master plan for restoration of the building and assuring that all work is done in accordance with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation of Historic Buildings.
For more information about the Chiselers, visit TheChiselersInc.com.
The Chiselers Inc.’s officers:
Esther Hammer, president
Karen Dalton, first vice president
Barbara Pennington, second vice president
Teri Willis, third vice president
Kathy Beeson, fourth vice president
Jane Hernandez, treasurer
Debbie Giglio, assistant treasurer
Dolly Fox, recording secretary
Barbara Stubbs, corresponding secretary
Audrie Ranon, parliamentarian
Published March 13, 2019