TAMPA — The Sicilian Club building at 2001 N. Howard Ave. once housed a “talking moving picture theater.”
The historic structure, originally built as a social club for Sicilian immigrants, will next be used to produce talking moving pictures.
North Carolina-based Black Horse Studio purchased the 14,000-square-foot building for $1.2 million from Pawan Rattan, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website.
“The building is this amazing gem,” said Jennifer Bostic, co-owner of Black Horse. “We couldn’t be more excited to make it our next home.”
They will spend nearly $2 million to transform it into a studio for photography shoots and commercial productions, hopefully by the summer of 2021, Bostic said. It will include space for temporary sets and a working kitchen for food photographs and commercials.
Black Horse has grown, Bostick said, from a company solely with North Carolina clients to one working with companies throughout the nation, including Lakeland-based Publix.
“We considered moving to New York or Chicago, California or even Atlanta,” she said. “But we decided on Tampa because we have done a lot of work there over the years and believe it is this incredible vibrant city.”
Black Horse’s current headquarters in North Carolina is also a historic building. Built in 1893, the red-brick castle-like structure was originally used by Nissen Wagon Works.
“We couldn’t just move into a normal building,” Bostic said. “We wanted a place with character and a story to tell.”
It will take work to restore the Sicilian Club.
Missing pieces of the roof allow pigeons to roost in the rafters. It needs new windows and the second floor must be stabilized.
“But the bones are good and what it still has is special,” said Justin Czternastek, whose Onsite Construction is charged with transforming the building.
Tile floors are in good condition on the first floor, where a marble staircase ascends to the second-story balcony. The old movie theater’s projection booth is still there.
“Those marble stairs alone would probably cost more than $100,000 today,” Czternastek said.
The entire building cost around $100,000 to construct in 1928, according to news archives, and was hailed as one of the city’s new architectural wonders in 1929.
The social club for Sicilians — founded in 1914 and originally headquartered on nearby Main Street — hosted dinners, dances, concerts and plays. The movie theater technology was added in 1931.
“It will be called the Cazin Sicilian Theater,” the Tampa Tribune reported that year, describing it as a “talking moving picture theater.” The public movie theater was expected to bring financial stability to the Sicilian Club.
But the Sicilian Club folded in the mid-1930s and members joined the Italian Club in Ybor City.
“The Great Depression ended its run,” historian Gary Mormino said. “The Italian Club took over the structure and operated it as an auxiliary.”
In 1947, the Westown Theatre, which focused on “outstanding Italian production pictures with English subtitles,” opened in the building and remained operational through the 1950s.
The Sicilian Club was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. But, it “was in bad shape” by 1990, Mormino said.
It was later restored by the West Tampa Community Boxing Club, which successfully lobbied the city to designate the building a local historic landmark in 2001.
But it again fell into disrepair.
In 2009, the Tampa Tribune reported that the city declared the Sicilian Club “unfit for human habitation due to a risk of collapse.”
The structure was steadied but remained vacant.
“We’re looking forward to bringing it new life,” Bostic said. “It already has so much character and soul. It has a personality that will shine even brighter once it is fixed up.”