TAMPA — Historic preservationists were furious in 2019 when the owners of West Tampa’s Santaella Cigar Factory chose to cover the exterior’s yellow bricks with white paint.
City Council weighed in, too, discussing whether they should step in and force local historic landmark designation on the building, which would prevent the exterior from being modernized.
The concern was that the paint job would ruin the historic integrity of the cigar factory built in 1904. The city chose not to step in, deciding that the designation was up to the property owner.
Most of the interior and less than half the Santaella’s exterior were painted white, but the paint job was never finished. Now, the building is set to have new owners, and one of their first orders of business is to remove the white paint.
It turns out that the paint could do more than ruin the cigar factory’s historic integrity: It could damage the structure.
“It actually kills the brick,” said Andrew Coogan, who with his fiancee, Allie Ryann, recently began leasing the cigar factory so that they could begin restoration while finalizing the deal to purchase it.
The paint, he explained, covers the pores of the brick, which release moisture. Eventually, that causes deterioration. The cigar factory is not in imminent danger, but the paint could prevent it from surviving another 119 years.
The couple plans to add a distillery, restaurant and wedding and event venue to the first floor, a garden courtyard outside and a rooftop bar that has a view of downtown. They also want to change the address from 1906 N. Armenia Ave. to 1904 N. Armenia Ave. to reflect the year the cigar factory opened.
The second and third floors will be refurbished but remain artist lofts, as they have been since 1998.
The current owners, Philip Farley III and Henry Bentley, had similar plans when they purchased the three-story, 58,000-square-foot cigar factory for $3.2 million in 2018.
Coogan has experience in renovation through his Coogan Window & Door installation company, and Ryann has been renting space in the factory for a few years for her photography.
“I’d walk through and imagine what it could be like,” Ryann said.
Another tenant told her the building was for sale.
“It was pretty organic the way the opportunity came up,” Ryann said. “It wasn’t like we were searching for it. We then kind of just started tinkering around with ideas and kept going. We both agreed that cigar factories are worth investing in.”
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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, a designation that also makes it more difficult to demolish a building. Keeping the exterior’s historic look is costly, but landmark status brings government grant opportunities.
Coogan and Ryann might seek the designation. But they first want to focus on finalizing the sale, signing first-floor tenants and, of course, removing that white paint.
“It’s an ambitious goal,” Coogan said. “The building has great possibility and is worth the work. We didn’t want to be those people who are not willing to pick up the sword.”