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Buildings in the blood

Kenneth Garcia's first works were sketches of objects and buildings he drew on a clipboard while watching TV as a kid. No one knew, especially him, that the scribbles would one day form the designs for some of Tampa's notable structures.

"Who knows how we're wired or why," said Garcia, of Abell Garcia Architects. "I guess I've always been visually oriented. I've always been interested in form and design."

An architect for more than 30 years, Garcia tends to be soft spoken, but the work speaks for itself.

His firm has done historic, recreational, public, commercial, religious and residential projects throughout the area and Florida.

The new Spain restaurant on Tampa Street in downtown, that's his. Same for the MacFarlane Park Alternative School, which incorporated decorative elements rescued from the old building. And his latest: the CCX North Condominiums going up in the Channel District.

Garcia, 58, loves the challenge architecture presents, from mixing the desires of the client to the concept of the project and the history.

"It's about getting it right or getting it as right as you possibly can," Garcia said recently at his office in a bungalow on Dekle Avenue.

Garcia grew up in Tampa and was raised in what's now North Hyde Park. After a childhood of drawing, Garcia decided in high school to pursue architecture. He studied at the University of Florida, graduated in 1968 and moved to New York City, where he worked in an interior architecture firm, redoing the insides of buildings.

It was exciting work, he said.

"We had Fortune 500 companies with Fortune 500 budgets," Garcia said, with a smile.

"Then I get back to Tampa."

Garcia returned in the 1970s with his wife, whom he has since divorced, and their daughter. He knew he ultimately wanted to work for himself and figured it would be easier in Tampa than New York.

Garcia began his own practice in 1979 and rented an office with another architect and friend, Jan Abell. They formed a business partnership in 1983 and built a niche in historic preservation. Garcia became active in the Barrio Latino Commission, which serves as an architectural and historical review board for Ybor City.

Abell and Garcia made a formidable team, he said. Their work on the Wilson-Leiman House was one of several that won various honors, including the Award of Excellence from the Florida Association of the American Institute of Architects in 1985.

Three years ago, Abell died in a horse-riding accident, shocking friends and business associates who credited her with sparking renovation efforts in entire neighborhoods.

"She was a really special person," Garcia said.

People now say the same thing about him.

Jason Busto began working with Garcia a few years ago when Busto wanted to design a house in Sunset Park. They designed a home in the shape of a cube with 12-foot ceilings and a crawl space almost tall enough to stand in.

"Ken was able to take someone like me, whose background is pretty generalist, and teach me to fall in love with architecture," Busto said.

Garcia's CCX North Condominium project is scheduled to break ground next month. Like most of his designs, this one tells a story. The seven-unit complex will rise on 12th Street near the Port of Tampa. The three-story building contains long, sleek levels, hinting to the container stacking and unloading inherent to the area.

Project developer Don Ebbert, a friend of Garcia, instantly thought of Garcia when he decided to build the condos.

"We wanted to be very European, very cutting edge, and I think Ken is one of the best architects in Florida who knows that vernacular," Ebbert said.

For Garcia, architecture is his livelihood and his hobby. He routinely puts in 70-hour work weeks, squeezing in time for his family and 2-year-old grandson, Jake.

"Everybody in my family complains about it, but I really enjoy what I do," Garcia said. "I'm not a golfer; I'm not a fisherman."

Scanning pictures and designs of his CCX project around his office he says, "This is what I do."

_ Denise Watson Batts can be reached at 226-3401 or

Kenneth Garcia

AGE: 58

JOB: Architect with Abell Garcia Architects.

HOME: Beach Park

HOBBIES: Architecture

NEW ADMIRED STRUCTURE: Villa dall'Ava, a house, outside Paris.

OLD ADMIRED STRUCTURE: Santa Maria della Salute, a church, in Venice.

LATEST PASSION: CCX North Condominiums breaking ground soon in the Channel District.

OTHER FAVES: Trivia and the movie Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.

TIDBIT: He's a vegetarian.

Architect Kenneth Garcia, who designed the CCX North Condominiums going up in the Channel District, routinely puts in 70-hour work weeks. "Everybody in my family complains about it, but I really enjoy what I do," he says. "I'm not a golfer; I'm not a fisherman."