TAMPA — The Bustillo Brothers & Diaz Cigar Factory’s owners are still deciding what to do with artifacts that remain inside their 120-year-old West Tampa building, which is being converted into what they say will be student housing for local colleges. Called Cigar Lofts at Albany, the building could be ready by April.
They might donate the relics to a museum or incorporate them into the interior design.
The items include a platform on which a reader, known as a lector, stood and recited literature to entertain the cigar workers, and tables on which the stogies were rolled.
The tables, which are more like long bins, are stacked upside down in the factory basement. Each still bears its rolling station number. And when they’re flipped right side up, the smell of the tobacco, rolled decades ago, fills the air.
“It’s a strong smell,” said co-owner Omar Garcia. “It’s the smell of history.”
Now, the cigar factory, long considered a historic structure, has that official designation.
Garcia and his business partner, Gil Simões, purchased the cigar factory at 2111 N Albany Ave. in October 2021 for $2.8 million, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser’s website.
A year later, the city of Tampa approved their request to designate it a local historic landmark.
That makes it more difficult for future owners to tear down the structure or change the exterior that the Garcia and Simões team is restoring to the original look.
“Structurally the building is sound,” Garcia said. “But we’ve basically had to redo the entire building envelope — replace the windows, replace the roof” and repair the mortar joints between bricks.
Without sharing the overall cost of the project, Garcia said that historically preserving the building is more expensive than if they had decided to modernize the exterior, which was allowed prior to the cigar factory becoming a local landmark.
But Garcia and Simões, who previously turned a 70-year-old downtown office tower into student housing known as 220 Madison, said that they prefer the “adaptive reuse” of historic structures.
“There aren’t many cigar factories left,” Simões said. “We want to do something for the city.”
There were more than 200 factories at the peak of Tampa’s cigar industry. Today, two dozen remain. Only one still produces cigars, and around half are protected as local historic landmarks.
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While Garcia and Simões call the apartments student housing, they are neither in a partnership with a local university nor can they refuse to rent to nonstudents. But the fully furnished apartments will be geared toward students by renting by the bedroom rather than the unit.
Overall, the four-story, 33,000-square-foot brick structure will have 22 apartments, each with three bedrooms.
The developers are also having 10 new townhomes built on the 1.5-acre property’s open land. Those will total another 44 bedrooms for rent.
“There will also be a clubhouse, a pool,” Garcia said. “It is a good mix of new and historic. Everybody seems happy to see another cigar factory being saved and restored. We are happy to do our part.”