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A white cigar factory? The new paint job renews talk of protections for Tampa's icons

The old Santaella Cigar Factory on N Armenia Avenue in Tampa, now undergoing remodeling, has been repainted white. The owner said in an email to one critic that maybe he should have painted it pink. [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]
The old Santaella Cigar Factory on N Armenia Avenue in Tampa, now undergoing remodeling, has been repainted white. The owner said in an email to one critic that maybe he should have painted it pink. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]
Published Jul. 31, 2019

TAMPA — Maura Barrios of West Tampa welcomed what she saw inside her community's Santaella Cigar Factory.

The first floor, converted by the former owner into a space for making furniture, has been turned into an event venue — "definitely an improvement," Barrios said.

Still, she said, she's appalled at the work that new owner Michael Hettrich is doing to the exterior of the building at 1906 N. Armenia Ave. — painting the distinctive raw bricks white.

"He is ruining its historic integrity," Barrios said.

Covering the original bricks has also upset others who live nearby, as well as local history buffs.

But there's nothing they can do to stop it.

No local historic designation protects the appearance of the 58,000-square-foot, 114-year-old factory.

So the critics are looking to the future, hoping to make sure other iconic cigar factories don't meet the same fate in what once was the cigar capital of the world.

RELATED STORY: City shuts down remodeling at West Tampa cigar factory, spurring new call for landmark status

Tampa City Council member John Dingfelder said he will ask at Thursday's council meeting to have the city's legal department investigate options for historical preservation of all Tampa's cigar factories.

Two of his colleagues on the council agree a discussion is needed — Guido Maniscalco, who represents West Tampa, and Charlie Miranda, who lives there.

"Painting over that brick is disgusting," Dingfelder said. "When someone buys that type of property, they take on a big responsibility to preserve and protect it."

Historic designation preserves the exterior of a building. It can only be requested by property owners and carries a prohibitive burden: Changes must follow city guidelines meant to preserve the original appearance.

That can be expensive and time consuming, but owners can apply for grants and the value of their property might rise.

Of the 200 or so factories that operated in Tampa's heyday as cigar capital, the late 1800s through mid-1900s, only about two dozen remain. Half carry historic protection. The Santaella does not.

The Santaella would not be required to undo its changes if the City Council votes to protect cigar factories, said Dennis Fernandez, the city's historic preservation officer. But owner Hettrich would be prevented from making additional alterations, Fernandez said.

The move also would stop owners of other factories from making changes. This includes West Tampa's Y. Pendas y Alvarez Cigar Factory and its iconic clock tower, also owned by Hettrich. Redevelopment work there has not started.

Hettrich did not respond to a request for comment from the Tampa Bay Times. Previously, he said the Santaella — now branded as the Ampersand Cooperative — will include a micro-brewery, cafe and updated studios for artists, some of whom have been renting there since before he owned the building.

In January, the city temporarily shut down construction at the Santaella factory after finding a number of code violations. At that time, artists credited Hettrich with stabilizing and improving the interior of the factory.

He expressed disdain for the critics in a recent email to Barrios, the West Tampa woman: "You can kick and scream all you want. I'm spending my own money."

He also faulted the city and neighborhood in the email for letting cigar factories "fall apart under your noses!"

Barrios said Hettrich agreed to meet with her at the factory last week but failed to show. She got a look at the first floor but that's all.

"Just because you have the money doesn't mean you should throw common sense out the window," Council member Maniscalco said. "The factories are historic and loved. This doesn't make sense."

In 2006, the City Council considered declaring all of Tampa's cigar factories historic landmarks . But a group of factory owners persuaded the council that the move amounted to an infringement of their property rights.

"I think there was hope that the owners would preserve and protect the factories on a voluntary basis," said Dingfelder, who as a councilman that year was one of two members who voted in favor of preservation. "Obviously, that hasn't worked."

Miranda, who holds a citywide council seat, represented the district that includes West Tampa during an earlier term. He was elected to the district in 2007.

"If the city knew then what we know today, that vote might have been different," he said. "No one has ever done something like this to a cigar factory."

The Macfarlane Park Neighborhood Association in West Tampa plans a presentation on preserving cigar factories and other historic buildings in Tampa at 6:30 p.m. Aug. 28 in the David M Barksdale Senior Center, 1801 N. Lincoln Ave.

"We need to protect property rights," said Missy Martin, association president. "But we also need to protect our history."

Fran Costantino, who in the early-2000s led a successful effort to extend the Ybor City historic district from 22nd Street to 28th Street, promised to help lobby to protect the cigar factories.

"We are cigar city," she said. "The cigar factories are our claim to fame. That is our history. I am sick over this. There is nothing stopping anyone from stuccoing over the bricks and painting them all purple."

In his email to Barrios, a resistant Hettrich suggested a different color for his cigar factories.

"I could and should paint them all hot pink," he said. "Well within my rights."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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