TAMPA — The J.C. Newman Cigar Factory’s clocktower, known as El Reloj, is Ybor City’s most iconic structure north of the interstate.
But the Perfecto Garcia Cigar Factory’s water tower is a close second, at least in the eyes of that building’s contractor, Robert Holsopple.
“You can see it from all over the neighborhood,” he said, “and have been able to for a long time.”
More than a century, in fact.
The water tower and the rest of the historic cigar factory at 2808 N. 16th St. were almost history.
Holsopple estimates that it would have collapsed under its own weight within a decade if, in 2019, Water Tower Holdings hadn’t purchased, stabilized and began converting the four-story, 49,000 square foot structure into an apartment building.
“It was in terrible shape, but we’re saving it,” he said. “But don’t call this a restoration project. This is a resurrection.”
It is going to take time. Every wooden support beam needs to be ripped out and replaced with steel before they can begin remodeling the factory into apartments. It might take three years to complete the project, possibly more, Water Tower Holdings managing partner Charlie Hettinger said. “But it will be worth it.”
The apartment building will have 36 units, most between 500 and 700 square feet. The top floor will boast larger penthouses that include private rooftop decks with views of Ybor and downtown.
“I’ve been on the roof for sunsets,” Hettinger said. “It’s gorgeous. People will love living here.”
It’s part of the renaissance of Ybor north of the interstate.
The Newman cigar family restored their factory and its clock and opened it for tours. They are also rehabbing a building that will become an inn and cafe, building a public park and starting a tobacco farm in the neighborhood.
That area also already has city-operated Cuscaden Pool and the Ybor Misfits Microsanctuary, which takes in and rehomes injured abandoned chickens.
“This neighborhood is going to be really cool,” Hettinger said. “There’s no room to invest over in Seminole Heights or the main part of Ybor anymore. So, development is moving here.”
When the apartments are complete, Perfecto Garcia’s interior will look nothing like a place that once supported Tampa’s cigar trade when it was the largest such industry in the world in the early- through mid-1900s. But the exterior will look nearly exactly as it did back then, down to the windows.
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The developers did not need to do that. While cigar factories are an important part of Tampa’s history, Perfecto Garcia has not been designated a local historic landmark. They could have modernized the exterior or demolished the factory.
“It would have been a lot cheaper to knock it down and start over,” Hettinger said. “We could have built a complex here that took up a whole city block. But this is important to the city. There aren’t many of them left.”
Of the 200 or so factories that once operated in Tampa, only about two dozen remain. Half carry historic protection. Hettinger said they are considering seeking a local landmark designation.
Perfecto Garcia was completed in 1915, according to news archives. But it was half the size that it is today. Over the next half century, two additions were constructed.
“The original part was still in good condition,” Hettinger said. “But the further west you went, where the additions were built, the roof was compromised and parts of that side of the building were going to fall over.”
Water Tower Holdings purchased the factory for $2.1 million, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website.
Hettinger wouldn’t share how much it would cost to save and convert the factory into an apartment building.
“A lot,” he said with a laugh. “But it needed to be saved. I asked our contractor what it would take to build something like this again. He told me that there was no way to do it. If we lost the cigar factories, we’d never see anything like those again in this city.”