Updated: Monday, 20 Feb 2012, 9:48 AM EST
Published : Monday, 20 Feb 2012, 7:21 AM EST
YBOR CITY – You could say the legendary Ybor Square holds the perfect balance of old and new.
On the corner of 8th Avenue and 13th Street, it stands as a symbol of Tampa’s past – holding 116 years of history between its red-brick walls – and sign of its future.
Years ago, it stood as the Tampa Bay area’s only brick cigar factory.
Built in 1886 by Don Vicente Martinez Ybor, factory workers who came from Cuba would churn out more than 10,000 cigars a day.
Fast forward to 2012, and it sits as a mix of modern magnificence and persevered relics.
You can thank the Church of Scientology for much of that.
The church bought the building last year for $7 million and poured in $6 million in renovations – refurbishing but still preserving much of its old roots. The three-building Ybor Square is also home to Spaghetti Warehouse and the offices for Creative Loafing.
“We were very lucky because, first of all, the building has really great bones, and the way it’s constructed is really good,” said Lisa Mansell, spokeswoman for the Church of Scientology.
The church, which Mansell said has renovated more than 20 historic buildings around the world, houses hundreds of employees at the site. As you walk through its luxurious, modern rooms, you forget for a moment that you’re in a 116-year-old building.
But there are glimpses of the past around nearly every corner.
Old platforms where lectors would read books and newspapers to factory workers remain in place. There are authentic tobacco bale presses, tin ceilings and the massive windows that were kept open to help cool the building during hot days.
Remarkable, Ybor City Museum curator Liz McCoy said, considering everything the building has been through.
“I do have to say I was worried because it’s been through so many different owners; it had gone through periods where so many different businesses had been in the building,” she said. “I wasn’t sure what to expect going in … but I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had left so many of the design elements in place.”
PHOTOS: Tour the building
The outside of the building has its own bit of history, too. On the front steps, Cuban revolutionary Jose Marti delivered a famous speech to factory workers at the time of the Cuban Revolution, rallying support against the Spanish suppression.
“It was a natural place for Jose Marti, who’s seen by many as sort of this George Washington figure of Cuba,” McCoy said. “He would come up to Tampa because there was such a large Cuban population here, trying to drum up support and money for the fight going back on in Cuba.”
The old factory is also entwined in the birth of the Cuban sandwich, McCoy said. It wasn’t invented there, but the first tasters were its factory workers.
“The workers would tend to go and get these huge lunches, and some of the business managers realized that their productivity was really dropping off after lunch,” McCoy said. “(They) went to some local eateries and said, ‘Look, you guys have to come up with something that’s less heavy – not so crazy. Bring it over, and we’ll give it a shot.’
And it’s thought that the first batches of Cuban sandwiches were brought over to the business offices of the Ybor factory. And the workers tried it out, loved it, and they said, ‘Tomorrow, bring back more.’”
And here’s some food for thought: Tampa was just a small fishing town when the cigar factory went up. It brought jobs and an economic boom.
Without it, who knows what our city would look like today.