Confession: Until this past weekend, I'd never been to Tampa or Ybor City before. I know, I know, for a cigar smoker it's a shame, but for an editor at Cigar Aficionado, it's closer to a disgrace. I admit it. That's why when I heard that the Fuente family was restoring their historical old red brick factory in Ybor over on North 22nd Street, I hopped on the first flight straight to Tampa and arrived in time for the dedication and cocktail party.
Now when many people talk about building "restoration," the project is often a half-hearted attempt that employs unqualified contractors who bid at the lowest price, use standard-quality materials and have no real understanding of period-construction or architecture. I've seen substandard "restoration" too many times-sculpted plaster ceilings covered by drop panels, mosaics ignominiously troweled over, Carrera marble replaced with cheap composites-my rant could fill a book. But this entry isn't about unskilled labor. It's about what Carlos "Carlito" Fuente Jr. has done to an old red-brick cigar factory and how his commitment pays tribute to the history of Ybor City.
"I don't even look at the bill, I don't care," said an enthusiastic Carlito as he took me around the building during the party. "It's not about money. It's about Tampa. About Ybor city and building a monument-no. I don't want to say monument. It's too strong a word. I want to give something tangible to my children. Passing the torch is just as important as making your mark in this world."
So what exactly has he done? Well, the family bought this brick building in 1964. It was originally a cigar factory when it was first built in 1903, but by the time the Fuentes bought it in 1964, it had been a shoe manufacturing facility. For a while this was the center of Fuente's entire logistic operation, from bringing in tobacco to actually rolling cigars. Then around the early 1980s, they moved the cigar-making side to the Dominican Republic and the building, although still used for shipping and receiving, was in slow decay. One day in 2009, when Carlito started replacing some windows on the upper floors, he noticed the neglected beauty of the building and it inspired him to start a full-fledged restoration process: All the exterior brick mortar was scraped out and re-applied; interior bricks were all ground down for a fresher appearance; original wood was salvaged from one floor to restore another; bricks from another demolished factory in Virginia were repurposed for the Fuente building; reproduction electrical fixtures were consistent with vintage photos; and really I could go on and on about the details. I even noticed all the bridge-style faucets and old-fashioned skeleton key covers over the locks.
Having Carlito show me through each aspect of the construction was like being on an episode of "This Old House," only here there were drinks served on each floor, passed hors d'oeuvres, cigars, Tampa's politicians, family, friends, and even all the artisans and contractors involved in the project. Carlito pointed to the floor.
"Right there you can see the old pitchfork marks in the wood," he said. We were on the third story. Once, that space was assigned the handling of raw tobacco and they'd use pitchforks for the short filer. Now, it's a beautifully appointed lounge whose window panes are gracefully set beneath decorative brick arches. "And you see this window? See that little mark? I did that when I was about 6 or 7 with a slingshot."
Carlito was clear that the work here has not finished. "We're going to have fountains out front and I'm going to hang a clock outside. It won't have the number 12. It's going to skip from 11 to 13."
Remember those Forbidden OpusX 13 cigars with those secondary clock bands? Hmmm.
Now standing at a window facing south, Carlito said: "The entire history of this country's cigar industry started here, in Tampa. The tobacco would come in right over there from the Port of Tampa and come straight to this building. Italians, Cubans, they all lived here. It was a community."
Carlito looked off into the distance for a moment out the window toward the water. I asked him if this new facility meant that he'd be spending more time in Tampa. He took off his hat and seemed troubled by the question and started walking towards the crowd in the other room.
"Well, I have to be everywhere. It all started here with me. There's a lot more we're going to do. We'll have offices for our charitable organizations out of this building. I'll go wherever I'm needed."
He looked up at the ceiling, then down at the pine floor boards-boards that one of the contractors said are hard enough to break your saw blades if you don't have the right machines. He started to say something, and then stopped, put his hat back on and walked back into party. He was the man of the hour. Or the 13th hour.