TAMPA — A religious service has not been held in the 115-year-old First Congregational Church building for decades.
But it still feels like a place of worship, with the deity being Arturo Fuente, the international cigar company rooted in Tampa.
Fuente cigar labels are displayed on stained glass windows.
Fuente family photos adorn wall space throughout the four-story, 8,000-square-foot building.
Fuente ashtrays sit on tables.
There are even Carlos Fuente, Jr. bobbleheads for sale.
“In a weird way, I guess it does” look like a Fuente church, Steven Shlemon said with a laugh. “But we are all about cigars here, and Fuente is one of the greatest cigar makers in the world.”
Shlemon is membership coordinator for Grand Cathedral Cigars, a cigar shop and lounge built inside the renovated historic church building. It opened in January.
Located at 2201 N. Florida Ave. in Tampa Heights, the first floor boasts a full bar, outdoor patio, walk-in humidor, gift shop and lounge area. It’s open to the public Sundays through Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
The second through fourth floors include a sports bar, private cigar lockers, conference rooms and a private party room in the bell tower. Those are open 24 hours a day for members only.
The Fuente company, founded and headquartered in Tampa, are the most obvious local historic tobacco family with a presence at Grand Cathedral Cigars, but they are not the only one.
Hunting trophies hanging on walls were provided by the Oliva Tobacco Company.
Neither Fuente nor Oliva are part of the ownership group, Shlemon said. “We just have a good relationship with them.”
Shlemon’s friend Lance Barton has owned the building since 2006 and originally headquartered an insurance business there. But in recent years was looking to do something “grander,” Shlemon said.
They considered a brewery, but possible partners fell through. Then they received a call from Angela Yue, who owns a cigar lounge in San Diego.
Shlemon, who is also a realtor, had put the building up for lease and Yue was flying to Tampa to scout it for a cigar lounge.
“We loved the idea and it turned into this venture,” Shlemon said. “Two and a half years later, here we are.”
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John Cinchett, author of Historic Tampa Churches, applauded the business for finding a modern use for a historic building.
“Not only is it one of the most historic structures in Tampa Heights,” he said, “but it also serves as a symbol of those countless men and women who selflessly labored for the growth of the church, who ministered to the poor and underprivileged during Tampa’s early years, a time when there was no government assistance.”
First Congregational Church was established in 1885 in a small wood-framed chapel on Florida Ave. and Royal Street, Cinchett said. “One of the church benefactors was O.H. Platt, who founded Hyde Park.
“Mr. Platt died in 1893 and he left $10,000 in his estate to the church, which they used to establish their building fund.”
The building at 2201 N. Florida Ave. was erected in 1906 at the cost of $16,350 and dedicated to Platt “to honor his contributions,” Cinchett said.
First Congregational sold the building to the Polish American Democratic Club in 1959 for $24,000, Cinchett said. The organization remained there for around 20 years, “but at some point, the old church was abandoned and fell into disrepair.”
News archives report that the building was repeatedly cited for code violations throughout the 1980s, then condemned in 1990 when homeless people lit a bonfire inside. The fire gutted the structure.
“The roof collapsed,” Cinchett said. “All the stained-glass windows were shattered.”
Lightning then struck the building and collapsed a wall in 1997, according to news archives. Architect William Muse purchased the church in 1999, stabilized the structure and donated it to Nick Cutro in 2005 to be used as a community center for the arts. That venture lasted one year.
Barton then bought the building for around $1 million, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website.
The exterior looks as it did 114 years ago, except for the modern stained glass windows, Shlemon said, and they did little to change the interior’s shell.
“We restored the old wooden floors rather than replacing them,” he said. “The doors are originals. We are told the hexagram paver floors are originals, so we kept them too.”
They even kept the burn marks in the walls from the fire.
“We wanted to honor the history,” Shlemon said. “All of it.”