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With lots of love and money, Tampa's historic gems keep shining

“Every Sunday, the Cuban Club theater would get full. It was a beautiful period,” said Raul Lavin, 98, the club’s oldest member.
Published May 28, 2015

TAMPA

Raul Lavin entered the world nearly a century ago as a member of the Cuban Club.

Lavin, 98, the club's oldest member, said his parents signed him up the month before he was born. That entitled him to 60 days of free membership, a great gift in those times, he said.

"The first thing cigar makers ever did was pay the dues to the club.''

That's because the club provided many of the joys and necessities of life: fellowship, theater, dancing, the neighborhood bar, doctor visits, pharmacy, hospitalization and burial.

The Cuban Club, Italian Club and Centro Asturiano, where Spanish immigrants gathered, stand as Tampa gems, looking like grand mansions built by railroad barons of the era. These elaborate edifices, all built between 1914 and 1918 to replace original buildings, housed America's first mutual aid societies, forerunners to health maintenance organizations. Celebrated architect M. Leo Elliott designed or helped design each building, all listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

A rescue effort led by descendants of the early members saved the buildings. The Cuban and Italian clubs were in such decay by the 1980s that pigeons, entering through broken windows, roosted in once-glittering ballrooms. Fund raisers and grants enabled the members to put millions into renovating them.

Centro Asturiano never deteriorated to the degree of the other two buildings because members raised the money to make improvements as needed over the years, said president Frank Menendez.

Another early club, organized by black Cuban immigrants who felt the full sting of the Jim Crow American South, did not fare so well. The Marti-Maceo Society's red brick club house on Seventh Avenue, built in 1907 with arched doors and windows and a high wraparound balcony outside, fell to the wrecking ball of urban renewal in 1965.

Sharon Gomez, president of the club — named for Jose Marti and celebrated black Cuban Gen. Antonio Maceo Grajales — said a lawyer member led a failed effort to save the old building. Members moved to a modest replacement on Seventh Avenue near the western gate of Ybor City. Like the other clubs, Marti-Maceo rents out the facility for private gatherings.

Not many of those involved in the rescue of the old buildings remember the time when cigar factories were smoking and the clubs were the center of life. Cuban Club president Patrick Manteiga, 51, for example, is too young. Manteiga, editor of La Gaceta, remembers the building only as a rental venue; as a teenager, he helped the organizers of the popular Artists & Writers Balls in the early 1980s.

All the clubs have lost members over the years, he said, just as service clubs like Optimist or Elks have.

"They just aren't a necessary part of life.''

They were vital in the beginning, when "Latins in non-Latin parts of town were not very welcome,'' he said. Depending on the club, within its confines members could bowl, play handball, work out, take a dip in an indoor pool and meet friends in the cantina for card games and dominoes.

Now, only Centro Asturiano's cantina is open to a few older members who gather daily for dominoes and cards. It's a small space on the second floor. When the club had 6,000 members, the cantina was a cavernous room on the ground floor. There, the magnificent, 42-foot marble and onyx bar — the longest of its kind in the world, Menendez says — is open only when the room is rented.

Immigrants took great pride in these buildings, which served as their country clubs. Joe Caltagirone, 89, historian for the Italian Club, said his grandfather would come home from work on a farm, bathe, eat dinner, put on a coat and tie and go to the club.

"My grandfather would not be caught dead in there without a tie and coat.''

The neoclassical building inspired Caltagirone to become an architectural draftsman.

"I remember looking at that building and admiring (the) architect, as a small kid,'' he said. "I thought it was a palace.''

For Lavin, the best time at the Cuban Club was right after World War II. The cigar factories were still bustling and so was the club, bringing in star band leaders such as Cab Calloway and Count Basie.

The club put on elaborate productions of light operettas like The Merry Widow, with lavish gowns for the women, elegant uniforms and cutaways on the men.

"Every Sunday, the Cuban Club theater would get full,'' Lavin said.

"It was a beautiful period.''

Manteiga said the Cuban Club needs between $3 and $4 million of work done to "rebeautify,'' enhance its appeal as an event venue and make structural improvements so that the building will stand for decades to come.

Fortunately, the building is no longer just the pride of its members. Along with the Italian Club and Centro Asturiano, it has become the pride of Tampa, a significant piece of architecture that a wider audience appreciates and supports, Manteiga said.

"I think that building would charm anybody.''

Contact Philip Morgan at pmorgan@tampabay.com.

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