The Centro Español social club returns to an ancestral home

Published June 12 2018
Updated June 12 2018

TAMPA — At its peak, Tampa’s Centro Español, a 127-year-old social club for those of Spanish descent, had 6,000 to 10,000 members who supported two headquarters that were each more than 20,000 square feet.

There was one located in Ybor City and another in West Tampa.

Then, in 1983, with membership dwindling and the upkeep of the buildings growing costlier, the non-profit sold both structures.

But 35 years later, the social club has returned to one of its homes.

The Centro Español signed a lease on May 10 to rent space on the second floor of its former 26,000-square-foot red brick West Tampa clubhouse.

The non-profit Hillsborough Education Foundation is currently headquartered there. The City of Tampa owns the building.

"We’ve had homes since we sold, but none were proper homes," club president John Ranon, 66, said. "This is our proper home."

Following the 1983 sale of the West Tampa headquarters at 2603 N Howard Ave., the social club purchased the West Tampa Convention Center.

They sold that building in 2013 and then moved into a strip mall office space on the corner of Armenia Avenue and Cordelia Street.

"It has been a long-standing desire to move back to our ancestral home," Ranon said. "We have patiently been waiting for an opportunity."

Its former Ybor headquarters, now part of the Centro Ybor complex, has not had any spaces the club could afford.

Then, half a year ago, Centro Español leadership reached out to the education foundation. A deal was made to lease 450 square feet for administrative purposes and meetings. Rent is $200 a month.

"It was the right thing to do," education foundation president Kim Jowell said. "This is their home after all."

Today, the 70-member Centro Español’s mission is different than that of their social service predecessors. The club now seeks to promote the culture of Spain and the nation’s historic links with Tampa.

"Being home will help," club president Ranon said. "Our history is here."

Established in 1891 as Tampa’s first social club for immigrants, the Centro Español’s inaugural headquarters was a wooden structure erected in 1982 and located where its brick Ybor building would later be built.

Initially a patriotic organization, in 1904 it morphed into a mutual aid society by providing members services such as medical care at its hospital on the corner of Bayshore and Bay to Bay boulevards and burial plots in two cemeteries, plus live entertainment at its wooden headquarters.

"By 1910 there was a clamor to construct a more permanent brick structure for the Centro Espanol," club president Ranon said.

But membership was split over which Latin community should get the headquarters. Ybor or West Tampa?

"So, the president and the board essentially acted like King Solomon," Ranon said, "and decided to split the baby and build two clubhouses."

The 23,000-square-foot Ybor headquarters opened in November 1912 and the West Tampa building two months later.

With architecture described by the press at their openings as semi-colonial with Spanish and Moorish attributes, they were hailed as buildings that "will stand for years as both an ornament and utility, and as a visible evidence of the progressiveness and public spirit of our Spanish-American citizens."

Both became epicenters for those of Spanish ancestry.

"Men played cards, chess, a lot of dominoes, there were dances," said E.J. Salcines, 79, who as a boy frequented the West Tampa building. "We had pool and billiards tables. I saw 80 percent of my childhood movies in the theater."

With two clubhouses, two cemeteries, a hospital, plus a small Ybor medical clinic, the Centro Español "at its peak was one of the largest non-profits in the history of Hillsborough County," board member Anthony Carreno, 70, said, "when you add up its property and extrapolate that to today’s dollars."

But membership began to decline in large part because Americanized grandchildren of club founders distanced themselves from their Spanish roots.

Spread financially thin, the hospital was sold in 1970 and both headquarters 13 years later. The social club later opened another hospital on Howard Avenue but sold it in 1993.

"Two homes meant double the debt and it made it difficult for future generations to maintain both," club president Ranon said. "Then both fell apart."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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