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Tour this historic Tampa home made of cigar boxes on Saturday

The Leiman House at 716 S. Newport Ave. is part of The Old Hyde Park Home Tour.
 
The exterior of the Leiman House in Tampa.
The exterior of the Leiman House in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Nov. 30, 2023|Updated Dec. 1, 2023

TAMPA ― Decorating the Smith home library are replicas of the golden idol from the opening action sequence of “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and the medallion that helps Indiana Jones find the ark.

“I obviously like the movie,” Chris Smith said with a laugh.

He and his wife, Donna Smith, have a little Indiana Jones in them.

Like the famed fictional archaeologist, they love history. But rather than fighting the Nazis for possession of powerful religious artifacts, in March 2022, they purchased and then restored one of Tampa’s more unique historic structures — the Leiman House, which is, in part, made of cigar boxes.

Also like Indiana Jones, the Smiths believe history belongs to the people.

So on Saturday as part of The Old Hyde Park Home Tour, they will open to the public their 109-year-old residence at 716 S. Newport Ave.

A dining area at the Leiman House. The walls are made of wood meant for cigar boxes a century ago.
A dining area at the Leiman House. The walls are made of wood meant for cigar boxes a century ago. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

The four-bedroom, two-story, 6,200-square-foot home is notable for several reasons, according to its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. “The Leiman House is a fine example of a wood frame and stucco Prairie Style house, a rare commodity in Florida.” And it “merits some attention as the home of one of the prime movers in Tampa’s business community during the early 20th century.”

Henry and Margaret Leiman moved from New York to Tampa in 1894 to open a factory that made cigar boxes during the era when the city was the cigar capital of the world. By 1929, according to news archives, the business was producing 25,000 boxes a day, more than any competitor in the world.

As legend goes, wood meant for the boxes was used to build the Leiman House, which was designed by architect M. Leo Elliott, whose resume includes Tampa City Hall and headquarters for Centro Asturiano de Tampa, the Italian Club and the Cuban Club.

This is “my favorite part of the story,” said Donna Smith, as she and her husband finished one another’s sentences while telling the tale.

The Leiman factory was “mass importing cedar from Cuba and the Yucatan,” Chris Smith said. “And frequently they would cut the wrong tree and get a pine or a mahogany or a tweed. They knew which ones were valuable.”

“And they grabbed it for the house,” Donna Smith said.

So, the home’s wooden walls, staircase and a bookshelf are, in a way, made of cigar boxes, they said.

The library room at the Leiman House. The walls and bookshelf are made of wood meant for cigar boxes a century ago.
The library room at the Leiman House. The walls and bookshelf are made of wood meant for cigar boxes a century ago. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

When the Smiths purchased the house, those walls had been painted white by the previous owners. They removed the paint, exposing the original wood.

The bones of the house were in disrepair, but not because of neglect, Chris Smith said. “Every old home needs work. This was no different.” The roof was replaced and they repaired several eaves.

And, when the Smiths learned that the split staircase leading to the front door needed to be restored, they purchased the marble from the same Georgia quarry that the Leimans did in 1914.

“We wanted to return it, as best we could, to the original glory,” Chris Smith said.

The Smiths moved to Tampa from Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, in 2021 after selling their company, which made additives and preservatives for paint. Their previous house was historic and they hoped to find another here. They moved into an apartment until the right one went on the market.

The living room at the Leiman House.
The living room at the Leiman House. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

While Donna Smith works as a paralegal for Hill Ward Henderson, her husband has focused solely on the residence.

“Restoring this house has been literally a full-time job,” he said.

Owning it has entered them into a fraternity of sorts with its former owners, the Smiths said.

One, hotel developer Joe Collier, even presented them with a gift. Around 2005, when Collier added a swimming pool and finished the basement, workers uncovered a dozen unopened bottles of Cuban rum that Leiman might have illegally purchased during Prohibition. One of those bottles is now on display in the Smiths’ living room.

Will they ever drink it?

“I’m curious how it tastes,” Chris Smith said. “But I’ll never open it. ... It’s part of the home’s history.”

Homeowner Chris Smith holds a bottle of Cuban rum that was found in  the Leiman House in Tampa.
Homeowner Chris Smith holds a bottle of Cuban rum that was found in the Leiman House in Tampa. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]

If you go

Hyde Park Preservation Inc. presents The Old Hyde Park Home Tour from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. Five homes are part of the tour that also includes and starts at St. John’s Episcopal Church, 906 S Orleans Ave.

Tickets are $30 in advance via oldhydeparkfl.membershiptoolkit.com/hometour or $35 at the door.

Correction: The Leiman House’s address is 716 S. Newport Ave. An earlier version of this story listed the wrong address.