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Century-old Ybor City clock tower will ring again soon

Residents once believed that the clock granted wishes at 9:15 a.m. It is being restored.
Published Sept. 24, 2020|Updated Sept. 24, 2020

TAMPA — The clock tower built into Ybor City’s El Regensburg Cigar Factory will ring again and, if the owners have their way, will chime for at least another 110 years.

Constructed by El Regensburg & Sons Cigar Company in 1910 along with the factory, it rung hourly for nearly half a century before it was first shut down due to noise complaints and later again when it broke due to wear and tear. Locals nicknamed the structure “El Reloj,” which means “the clock” in Spanish.

The clock was fixed in 2002 and used its bell to alert locals to the time through 2019, when it was again shut down. This time, structural restorations are part of a multimillion-dollar renovation to the factory at 2701 N. 16th St., now owned by J.C. Newman Cigar Company.

The clock will tick and chime again come November, said Eric Newman, third-generation president of the company.

“It is receiving its regular 110-year facelift,” Newman said with a laugh. “We are shoring up the bricks to make sure water never gets in and we’re cleaning the faces. We are making sure it never goes anywhere.”

Owner, Eric Newman discusses the history of the 110-year-old clock in front of the clock's original face inside the first floor lobby where a small museum is located.
Owner, Eric Newman discusses the history of the 110-year-old clock in front of the clock's original face inside the first floor lobby where a small museum is located. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

It was more than a clock for families who lived in Ybor in the early 1900s.

As the story goes, if residents walked outside at 9:15 a.m., their wishes would come true if made while looking at El Reloj and extending their arms horizontally to mimic the position of the clock’s hands.

“It’s an Ybor City fairy tale,” Newman said. “We’re proud to be a part of it.”

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Founded in 1895 by Julius Caeser Newman, the company was originally based out of Cleveland before relocating to Ybor in 1954 during the tail end of Tampa’s era as cigar capital of the world.

The family-owned business chose Ybor so they could be be closer to Cuba, which back then could still ship tobacco to the United States. They picked the three-story 97,000-square-foot Regensburg factory in part because of the clock tower.

Related: Want to buy some time? West Tampa cigar factory with iconic clock tower is up for sale

“It’s just a fantastic piece of the factory,” Newman said. “El Reloj was the heart and soul of Ybor. Think back before anyone had watches. This was how they told time. Before noise pollution, you could hear it all the way to downtown. Kids knew they had to be home by 6 p.m., so would run from the baseball fields at the first dong and make it home by the sixth.”

Still, the Newmans shut it down in 1956.

Newman’s late father, Stanford Newman, once told the Tampa Bay Times he did so because “a lady called me up and she said she lived a block from here, and I was keeping her baby up all night, and would I please stop ringing the bell.”

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The bell inside the clock tower is located levels below the 110-year-old clock at the J.C. Newman Cigar Company. The clock is undergoing restoration.
The bell inside the clock tower is located levels below the 110-year-old clock at the J.C. Newman Cigar Company. The clock is undergoing restoration. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Other neighbors, he recalled, were not happy with his decision.

“I had people just beg me to get the bell working again,” he said, but had already promised the mother that the clock would remain silent.

Hurricane Donna took two of the clock’s original four faces in 1960.

Strong winds took another in 1971, but as repairmen worked to shore up the structure following the storm, they accidentally turned El Reloj back on by disturbing “a portion of the mechanism,” according to Times archives.

The Newmans decided to keep the clock running, but a few years later the original rods wore out and El Reloj fell silent until it underwent a full restoration in 2002.

Its gears, pendulum and 800-pound bell are the originals.

The last of the original four clock faces now hangs in the lobby.

The last of the original clock faces is now hangs in the J.C. Newman Cigar Company's lobby.
The last of the original clock faces is now hangs in the J.C. Newman Cigar Company's lobby. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

David Boyd of Tampa’s Boyd Clocks, which services El Reloj, said it is the only weight-driven clock left in state of Florida. All other such clocks, he said, went electric in the 1950s.

El Reloj is operated by two sets of weights wound once-a-day either by hand or with a motor installed 10 years ago.

A 75-pound weight system pulls cables attached to a 40-pound hammer that rings the bell located four stories up, Boyd said, and a 50-pound weight system is attached to cables that operate the clock hands seven stories up.

“It’s like a giant cuckoo clock,” Boyd said. “But without a cuckoo.”

Shoring up the clock tower will cost around $400,000, Newman said, a price partly offset by a $101,040 Hillsborough County historic preservation grant.

“We are so thankful for the county’s generosity,” Newman said. “They realize this is more than just a clock. It is an important part of our city’s history and story. Let’s keep it running forever.”

Gears located in the lobby's museum show how the clock has functioned throughout the years.
Gears located in the lobby's museum show how the clock has functioned throughout the years. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]