Outside the main society building a group of sculptures by Anna Hyatt Huntington features El Cid on horseback; Today both the John Muir House (mansion) and The Martínez Adobe are open to the public.  Pictured is Muir’s original desk as displayed in the “scribble den.”
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American Latino Heritage

El Centro Español de Tampa

Ybor City, Tampa, Florida

El Centro Español de Tampa

El Centro Español de Tampa
Public Domain Image, Wikimedia Commons

El Centro Español de Tampa, a National Historic Landmark, is one of the best surviving Spanish mutual aid society buildings in the Gulf Coast States of the United States. Many Spanish immigrants came to the Gulf Coast States of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida during the last decades of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th century. Located in Ybor City, Tampa, Florida’s “Latin Quarter,” this clubhouse reflects the important roles mutual aid and ethnic societies played in immigrants’ new lives in the United States. The building illustrates the trend-setting influence of the Spanish-born elite who founded Ybor City and long had a dominant influence on its commerce and social and intellectual life. El Centro Español de Tampa provides visitors and the nation with an important place to remember this phase of Spanish immigration to the United States.

During the 1880s and 1890s, Ybor City, Florida quickly developed into one of the cigar manufacturing centers of the world populated by Spanish and Cuban immigrants and others who worked in the cigar factories. As Florida’s first “industrial town,” by 1900 cigar factories in Ybor City out-produced cigar manufacturing in Havana, Cuba, earning Ybor City the title of “Cigar Capital of the World.” The male and female artisans who rolled the perfect handcrafted cigars in Ybor City could make good wages and had some control over their own workday. Paid based on how many cigars they produced, they had a certain amount of control over their own rate of production. At the factories, each worker contributed 25 cents per week for the services of lectors (readers). Lectors sat on the platform above the workers in the large workrooms and in loud, clear voices read the daily newspapers and Spanish poems, novels, and plays to the workers at their jobs.

The inside of an Ybor City cigar factory, circa 1920

The inside of an Ybor City cigar factory, circa 1920
Public Domain Image, Wikimedia Commons

In 1891, with production and business booming, a small body of the Ybor City’s Spanish businessmen and artisans organized the community’s first social and mutual aid society, El Centro Español. Before the State of Florida issued El Centro Español’s charter on September 7, 1891, Tampa had no existing philanthropic or charitable institutions to serve the new immigrants, and unlike their role in many other communities, religious institutions played a relatively small role here. The Spanish elite established El Centro Español to help the Spanish immigrants adapt to the United States while retaining their ethnic traditions. To join, applicants had to be either Spanish by birth or loyal to Spain. The club, which required members to pay 25 cents per week, provided recreational opportunities, low-cost health care for the many single men and the increasing number of families in the area, social privileges, educational programs, and death and injury benefits. As the first mutual aid society in Ybor City, El Centro Español set the organization model and economic blueprint for other nationalities to establish similar institutions.

By 1892, El Centro Español’s directors organized the Spanish Casino Stock Company with the goal of creating further recreational and theatrical activity for the club. The directors then had each of the original 186 members pledge stock shares of $10. They used the money to finance the building of a clubhouse at 16th Street and 7th Avenue. Costing $16,000, the first El Centro Español clubhouse was a large, ornate, wooden frame building that contained a theater, dance hall, cantina, and classrooms. Construction of the Centro Español’s Sanatorio in 1906 – which was probably the most modern and complete hospital in Florida at the time – further established the important role the club played in Ybor’s community. The clubhouse and Sanatorio provided the necessary facilities for the growing membership and influence of the club.

By 1901, the club had grown from 186 members to 926, expanding to 1,886 members in 1907 and to 2,537 in 1912. Over 20 years, the strength and size of the club steadily grew, and by 1912, the club was able to replace its original two-story wooden building with a massive dark red brick and stone-trimmed clubhouse. Built in a combination of Spanish, Moorish, and French Renaissance architectural styles, the clubhouse provided its members with an impressive space for social, cultural, and educational activities.

The decorative Moorish entrance arch with cast-iron trim.

The decorative Moorish
entrance arch with cast-iron trim.
Public Domain Image, Wikimedia Commons

The long, rectangular building with its 2-1/2-story main block and a 3-1/2-story wing attached to its rear (north) façade contains a central lobby, flanked by a theater and cantina, and a ballroom on the second floor. Many Spanish-speaking artists and visiting dignitaries added the club’s theater, “El Gran Teatro Español,” to their international itineraries, and club members continued to watch movies and view live performances at the theater until the mid-1980s. El Centro Español de Tampa, with its wrought-iron balconies with Spanish motifs, decorative Moorish entrance arch with cast-iron trim, and eyebrow windows with white stone trim and decorative stonework, provided a physical place where Ybor City’s immigrant residents could maintain their ethnic identity while adapting to life in a new country.

El Centro Español experienced several decades of prosperity and growth, and thrived between World War I and the Great Depression. After that time, however, changes in the social, cultural, and political atmosphere in the United States contributed to a slow decline in the need for and use of mutual aid societies. Prohibition, the Great Depression, a decline in the cigar manufacturing industry, and immigration restrictions sent much of Ybor City’s population looking for work elsewhere. By World War II, a shift to government-provided welfare programs made the role of mutual aid societies in providing healthcare and social welfare to their communities less needed. Membership ebbed and flowed until the club sold El Centro Español de Tampa in 1983.

El Centro Español de Tampa sat vacant for many years. After being restored in 2010, the clubhouse is once again a center of life and activity. Businesses, restaurants, a gift shop, and the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center are housed in the building and an Improv Comedy Theater in its historic theater fills the old clubhouse with laughter and energy.

Plan your visit

El Centro Español de Tampa a National Historic Landmark, is located at 1526-1526 E. 7th Avenue, Tampa, FL. Click here for the National Register of Historic Places file: text and photos. The Ybor City Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center located within El Centro Español de Tampa is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00am to 5:00pm and Sunday from 12:00pm to 5:00pm. For more information, visit the Ybor City Chamber of Commerce Visitor Center website or call 813-241-8838.

El Centro Español de Tampa has been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey.

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