TAMPA — At three stories high with a French architectural style and Spanish coats of arms sculpted into exterior walls, the red brick Centro Español Hospital was among Tampa’s most opulent structures from 1906 until it was razed in the 1970s.
Today, all that remains of the hospital that provided Spanish immigrants with socialized healthcare is one of three fountains that, when operational, were each surrounded by pools of goldfish.
“As a kid, I hoped someone was sick so I could see the fish,” Anthony Carreño, 72, laughed.
Today, sitting between buildings 1 and 2 at Bay Oaks Apartments, which occupies the land on the corner of Bayshore and Bay to Bay boulevards, the fountain is crumbling and overgrown with weeds.
But property owner Related Group has good news for preservationists.
They plan to replace the apartments with a five-acres of condos and hope to restore that fountain, incorporate it into the design and install a marker telling of the hospital’s importance to Spanish immigrants.
“I am really happy to hear that,” Carreño said. “It needs to be remembered.”
Miami-based Related was unaware of the property’s history until last week. The development company purchased it in 2019 and senior vice president Mike Hammon admits he thought the fountain was a planter.
It likely would have been a victim of a wrecking ball to make room for the condos.
But the Centro Español de Tampa club that once ran the hospital sent Related a letter explaining the medical facility’s historic significance and asked that they preserve the fountain.
“We look forward to working with them to find its best use,” Hammon said. “I’d love to tell its history.”
From the late 1800s through mid-1900s, immigrants from Italy, Cuba and Spain came to Tampa to work in its vaunted hand rolled cigar industry and affiliated businesses.
Each of those immigrant groups established their own Ybor City-based mutual aid society that provided paying members services such as banking, live entertainment, burials and health care.
The mutual aid societies call that “cradle to the grave social services,” John Rañon, 68 and current president of the Centro Español, said.
Established in Ybor in 1891, the Centro Español is the oldest mutual aid in Tampa.
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Construction began in 1904 on the Centro Español Hospital, also known as a Sanatorio or Sanatarium, meaning “a place of healing,” retired judge and club member E.J. Salcines said. It opened in February 1906, according to news archives.
The Tampa Tribune hailed the Centro Español Hospital as an “architectural wonder” with an “imposing presence.”
Inside, it boasted 72 patient rooms, an operating room, laundry facilities, a chapel and cold storage.
“For that time, it was an amazing facility to offer to Centro Español members,” said Rodney Kite-Powell of the Tampa Bay History Center.
Still, the three fountains were the most popular feature among children, Carreño and Salcines said.
The middle fountain, around 12 feet high with a 10 foot pool surrounding it, was the largest and was located in front of the entryway staircase facing Bayshore Blvd. The other two, around 8 feet high with smaller pools, were located on either side of the building.
The fountain still on the property is one of the smaller two.
Each had a planter at the top from under which water flowed onto a concrete disk and then a second larger disk before spilling into a pool filled with goldfish.
The hospital preferred children remain outside, so parents would leave them by the fountains for entertainment.
“My assignment was to count the goldfish,” Salcines said with a laugh. “My numbers were always off because I’d count some once but others twice. They never stopped moving.”
In 1970, the Centro Español erected a new hospital at 4801 N Howard Ave. in West Tampa and the original was razed to make way for Bay Oaks Apartments.
No one knows why the one fountain was spared.
As the mutual aid societies’ memberships dwindled, the hospitals and clinics closed, no longer economically feasible.
Centro Español’s other properties were sold, though they still rent space in their former West Tampa clubhouse. The second hospital was taken over by Kindred Hospital Central and the Ybor headquarters are part of Centro Ybor.
“Why was every one of those buildings but the original Centro Español Hospital incorporated into a something else?” said David Rañon, 31, and the son of John Rañon and a club member. “Why would someone rather have demolished it? It was gorgeous.”
Still, the fountain provides some historical solace, he said. “At least we have something.”
Hammon said that perhaps the fountain can be “part of the sidewalk that wanders up to the property. I can’t promise anything, but we will look at options.”
If the Centro Español is unhappy with the choices, Hammon said, Related would be open to donating the fountain back to the club or to a museum.
John Rañon prefers it stays on the Bayshore property, but said it could be moved to one of the Centro Español’s two cemeteries.
Carreño just wants to see the fountain restored and operational again.
“Wouldn’t that be something?” he said. “Goldfish and everything maybe.”