[graphic] El Centro Espanol de Tampa

[photo] Exterior of El Centro Español de Tampa today.
Courtesy of the Florida Division of Historical Resources
El Centro Español de Tampa, a National Historic Landmark, is an exemplary Spanish ethnic and cultural club building located in the Gold Coast States. This area of the country was the main focus of immigration from Spain in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The clubhouse dramatically illustrates the role of ethnic, social and mutual assistance organizations in the daily life of immigrant populations during that time period. Today it is one of only a few building to survive nationwide that represent this phase of Spanish immigration to America.

In 1891, Spanish settlers in Tampa's rapidly growing cigar manufacturing center organized the community's first social and mutual aid society, El Centro Español. It was the first ethnic club established in Ybor City, Tampa's "Latin Quarter" and is a jewel among all the extraordinary clubs that were built there. (The Ybor City Historic District is also a National Historic Landmark, and is the subject of a Teaching With Historic Places Lesson Plan). Tampa had no existing philanthropic or charitable institutions at the beginning of this immigration wave and, in comparison to other communities, religious institutions played a relatively modest role there. El Centro Español was founded by the Spanish elite who dominated Ybor City, to preserve their identity, provide recreational opportunities and to offer low-cost health care for the many single men and the increasing number of families settling in the area. The club's Sanatorio, completed in 1906, was probably the most modern and complete hospital in Florida at the time. The club also welcomed Cuban-born immigrants who were loyal to Spain, in contrast to those that supported revolution there (Cuba was a Spanish territory until 1898).

[photo] "El Gran Teatro Español," part of the international itinerary for Spanish-speaking artists and visiting dignitaries to Tampa.
Photograph from the National Register collection

Attesting to the society's strength, within 20 years it was able to replace its original two-story wooden building, with a massive brick and stone-trimmed clubhouse. Finished in 1912, El Centro Español is an impressive example of Spanish, Moorish and French Renaissance-influenced architecture. Inside, the club contains a central lobby, flanked by a theater and cantina, and a ballroom on the second floor. The lobby is decorated with hexagonal tile floors, glazed tile wainscoting, and a marble staircase. The same floor and wainscoting appear in the cantina, richly embellished with a pressed metal ceiling and Tuscan colonnades that divided the room into three sections. "El Gran Teatro Español," with seating for several hundred, quickly became part of the international itinerary for Spanish-speaking artists and visiting dignitaries. The original oak parquet floors and musicians gallery still remain in the ballroom.

[photo] Ballroom of El Centro Español de Tampa, with the original oak parquet floors and musicians gallery.
Photograph from the National Register collection

El Centro Español thrived between World War I and the Great Depression, but began to decline slowly thereafter--the result of numerous social and cultural changes including Prohibition, the decline of the cigar industry, the acculturation of young men from the community that served in the Armed Forces during World War II, immigration restrictions, the shift to government-provided social welfare programs such as Social Security, and 1960s redevelopment of the Ybor City area. Sold in 1983, the building today is privately owned.

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