Former Ybor City brewery mixes past with future in Tampa

If walls could talk, those at the former Florida Brewing Company building in Ybor City would speak volumes. The six-story red-brick landmark is an architectural time capsule, a 19th-century industrial building serving today as one of Tampa’s most modern professional office complexes. Standing sentinel at the corner of Nuccio Parkway and East 5th Avenue, the Victorian-era edifice opened in 1896 as the tallest building in Florida and remains the tallest in Ybor City. 

Relatively few know of this building’s glorious past, once serving as Tampa’s preeminent brewery with the production of its flagship label, La Tropical. But one Tampa native named Dale Swope is committed to keeping its history alive. Swope, A window overlooking Ybor City inside the old Florida Brewery, now a law firm.a University of South Florida graduate now in his 60s, remembers strolling past the 75-foot-tall building when he was a kid. It was a murky period for Ybor City, which was aging past its prime as the “Cigar Capital of the World.” By the early 1960s, the famous Tampa Latin quarter was halved by the interstate system and decimated by urban renewal. The former Florida Brewing Company building and a conjoined low-slung structure, the former Ybor City Ice Works, had been shuttered by the mid-1960s and succumbed to decades of neglect.

“It became an eyesore,” laments Swope, a Tampa attorney. 

The landmark that captivated him as a kid is where today he shares offices with his attorney partner, Angela Rodante, and their team of legal professionals. Swope purchased the building in the late 1990s with notable Tarpon Springs contractor Joseph Kokolakis to restore it, which by that time had sat dormant for more than three decades and was becoming more decrepit by the year. The roof had caved in, the windows were bricked over, and piles of trash inside the building stood up to several feet high. “It got so bad, even the vagrants had moved out,” Swope remarks.
Under the helm of architect Stephanie Gaines, AIA, the renovations began in 1999 and took some two and a half years to complete, but the results are absolutely stunning.  

Uncovering the story behind Florida Brewing Company

Work crews had to excavate tons of debris from the building upon beginning extensive restorations in 1999. But as they peeled through the layers, the building began telling stories. The tales were pieced together through the discoveries of decades-old relics from various periods in the building’s past. These everyday items, once commonplace, are now rare treasures linking the building and its 21st-century occupants to the past. Among these finds are old beer bottles emblazoned with long-forgotten La Tropical logos, cigar wrappers and boxes from Ybor’s heyday, decades-old pinup posters from the men’s restrooms, wooden window frames once bejeweled with decorative panes, and even emergency supplies stored in the building during the Cold War years of the early 1960s. The building has lived a colorful life. 

Founded by cigar industrialists Vicente Martinez Ybor and Eduardo Manrara for $200,000 as Ybor City Brewing Company, the facility was soon renamed Florida Brewing Company and was the home of La Tropical beer. The brewery, modeled after the revolutionary Castle Brewery in Johannesburg, South Africa, became the first in the United States to employ refrigeration in the manufacturing process. The implementation of refrigeration required the building to be constructed with several thick interior walls physically dividing the cooler segments of the brewing process from those involving heat. 

“The brewery hired 80 to 90 people,” explains Swope. “Many of the employees were German immigrants, and it was the hub of Ybor’s German-American community,” he notes. Ybor City was indeed a community of immigrants, with Germans among the many new Americans who called the Tampa neighborhood home in the late 19th century. Like the dozens of cigar factories that were springing up around Ybor City around the turn of the 20th century, Florida Brewing Company was an industrial beacon in Ybor’s boom years, drawing immigrants from several nations. “Tampa was built by immigrants, including those from Cuba, Spain, Sicily, Germany. They all converged here in Ybor City, and that’s something that makes this place so fabulous.” 

Antique bottles at Swope Rodante, once The Florida Brewery.The brewery and neighboring ice facility were constructed over the Government Spring, which many native cultures considered a sacred place. The Spring later supplied fresh water to military officials stationed at nearby Fort Brooke during Tampa’s early years.

“Many folks who remember Ybor City decades ago will recall a wishing well that stood nearby the Florida Brewing Company,” Swope says. “You could fill bottles with water from a tap there. “Many people think that’s where Government Spring is, but actually that water was piped in from the spring below [the Ice Works wing].”

Like the nearby wishing well, Florida Brewing Company was a community hub. Upon its opening in 1896, it drew throngs from all over Tampa. The celebration was wild, with some drinking themselves to oblivion. A couple years later, Theodore Roosevelt and his 30,000 troops known as the Rough Riders were stationed in Tampa during the Spanish-American War in 1898. The brewery stepped up production for the troops while they were in town during the nearly four-month-long conflict between the United States and Colonial Spanish forces in Cuba. 

The brewery may have served up some of the community’s most popular beer, but alcohol left its imprint on those working within the building, too.

“They used a vacuum system here to help keep the cold places in the building cold, and they thought the vacuum would help prevent workers within from getting drunk from the alcohol seeping into the air from the brewing process,” explains Swope. “But it didn’t work out that way.” Many of the workers became drunk just sampling the brew. 

The beer was thought to be so pure that you couldn't get drunk on it, but that was disproved on opening day at the brewery. Reportedly, at least one fight broke out that day between two men, one of Spanish origin and the other with Cuban roots. The fight led to fatal results for the Cuban who, as Swope says, now haunts the building.

“I’m not really a ghost guy,” Swope notes, “but some time ago we heard a Spanish-speaking voice in the building. I spent many nights here and thought a homeless person had entered, as we see a few around here. The voice always seemed to be just behind a wall. This place has some really good haunts. “It was the only death known in the building.”  

Even though prohibition began in Florida in 1918 and was mandated nationwide in 1920 with the passage of the 18th Amendment, Florida Brewing Company was still producing beer into the 1920s.
Raise a glass with the Tampa Bay History Center for “History by the Pint: Beer and Brewing in Tampa Bay,” a new exhibition highlighting the evolution of the local beer and brewing community, opening Saturday, March 2, at 10 a.m.
“The story goes that local mafia tycoon Charlie Wall built a tunnel from the base of the brewery to a nearby hotel and ran beer underground.” A raid in the late 20s led to the building’s temporary closure as a beer facility. But after Prohibition ended in 1933, the building gained a new lease on life as Tampa Brewery. Around the end of World War II in the mid-1940s, the “La” was dropped from the “La Tropical” name. Despite the rebranding, the beer remained popular throughout Florida, much of the Southeast, and Cuba. 

At its peak, the brewery produced 80,000 barrels of beer annually and perhaps would have marched through the 20th century and beyond as Tampa’s most famous label. But Tampa’s growing economy during the post-war years hindered Tampa Brewery in an ironic way. Seven miles north of the aging brewery building in Ybor City came two national beer companies who staked their claims in North Tampa Industrial Park near Bougainvillea Avenue and 30th Street. 

In 1957, Joseph Schlitz Brewing Company opened a massive facility that today is operated by Yuengling. Two years later, Anheuser-Busch built its own brewery and also a visitor center known as Busch Gardens that quickly became one of the state’s most popular tourist attractions. Meanwhile, Ybor City’s brewery was showing its age. “It was an old building by the early ‘60s,” Swope remarks. New competitors in Tampa, coupled with the trade embargo with Cuba that emerged soon after Fidel Castro took over the island in 1959 spelled doom for the Ybor brewery.

Much of the building was sold to Corral-Wodiska & Company cigar manufacturers, which used their space for storing fresh tobacco. In 1962, the sturdy building also served as a proposed fallout shelter during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But before long, the building was abandoned. It sat vacant for most of the rest of the 20th century, becoming a community eyesore as the 1980s dragged into the 1990s, with many deeming it a deterrent to the revitalization of Ybor City. In swooped Swope, who spared the building from the wrecking ball and brought the faded landmark back to economic relevance. 

Keeping history alive one brick at a time

Swope and Kokolakis were visionaries. They turned a decaying Industrial Age fortress into a modern nerve center suited for the ever-evolving needs of the Information Age. The building, now known as Swope, Rodante Law Firm and boasting a 1234 E. 5th Avenue address, stands today as one of Tampa’s most unique places to work. The extensive restoration project also received the Builder’s Choice Adaptive Reuse Award.  A cross-section of an old I-beam in the brick wall is one of many relics left from the building's industrial past.

While the building underwent complete rehabilitation, Swope and Kokolakis were diligent in sparing the building’s character and industrial past. Massive rails from the building’s days as a brewery still hang from the rafters, hooks and bracket plates are visible on walls throughout the building. Nails poke through the walls. Chunks of glass bottles used as aggregate in concrete structural components are left exposed.

“We tried to respect the history of this place,” Swope states. These little bits of history still speak loud and clear throughout the building, now filled with sleek technological breakthroughs of the digital world, such as flat-screen computer monitors, LED lighting, and lightning-fast WiFi internet connections. 

These days, the building teems with life in a way it hadn’t for so many decades. Yet it’s also a continual work in progress.

“We need to replace about 1 percent of the red bricks every other year as they chip and crack due to natural deterioration,” explains Swope, pointing out the elaborate brickwork exposed throughout nearly every corner of the building. Replacing the brick isn’t just a matter of running down to the nearest big-box store for a cartful of bricks and mortar, either.

“You really can’t mix new bricks with old bricks,” he explains, saying it’s not just a matter of aesthetics but also the chemical bonding in the clay found in the original clay bricks. “We were fortunate to have a ready supply of bricks from the foundation of a smokestack that once stood here on property.”

The bricks recovered from the collapsed smokestack and its foundation helped provide restoration crews with plenty of original bricks to fill in missing or damaged bricks during the reconstruction process in the late ‘90s and early 2000s. 

Swope admits the job of reconstructing the old building wasn’t easy, nor was it cheap. It was a labor of love. “I don’t want to see Ybor City lose its identity,” he says. When it comes to Ybor’s continuing push for redevelopment, Swope advocates renovation over demolition. “100 percent, older is better than modern. What you get with today’s buildings is soulless. Sure, it may cost a couple dollars more to restore an old [Henry] Plant or Ybor building, but you can’t put a price on history.” 

Modern amenities steeped in history 

Swope is proud of the work he has accomplished in preserving the building, now a crown jewel in the newly redeveloped Ybor City. “We’re trustees for one of Tampa’s most historic buildings.” He sees his building continuing to serve in Ybor as a place where history and standing as a statement on how history and community can still coexist in the ever-modernizing 21st century. 

Karina Perez, left, and Silvia Brett are lawyers with Vanguard Attorneys.“We’ve got a gym, nursery, and conference areas throughout the building,” he notes. Then there are the lounges -- several of them around the sprawling facility, serving as nods to the building’s brewing past and designed for use by those who lease space within the historic Ybor landmark. One of those lounges resides in a quaint room tucked atop the building’s main tower. With a cathedral ceiling and grand piano, it’s an exquisite gathering place where one can marvel at stunning views of downtown Tampa and the surrounding Ybor City while sipping a favorite brew. 

It’s special touches like the private luxury lounges, museum-quality displays of relics recovered during the restoration, and the
structure’s intrinsic characteristics such as high ceilings and wide-open spaces that attract other tenants to the building, too. Occupying the building along with Swope & Rodante law firm is Vanguard Attorneys, a team of about a half dozen accomplished legal professionals who were drawn to the building by its convenient location and eclectic personality. 

Managing attorney Karina Perez enjoys working in the 2,000-square-foot office the Vanguard team calls home. “I previously worked in a high-rise downtown,” she said. But the cubicle life wasn’t for her, and she was drawn to the rustic, yet airy first-floor quarters on the west side of the Florida Brewing Company building.

“The character in this building is incredible -- it’s inspiring,” she says. “There’s certainly more history to this building than in the 1980s-era skyscrapers downtown,” she says. “And there’s plenty of room to expand here,” notes Perez, who says her firm is planning to double their current space at their 1220 E. 5th Avenue digs in the not-so-distant future. “Being in Ybor really helps us throughout the workday,” Perez notes. “It’s very walker friendly here and you can grab lunch at so many cool places.” 

Big spaces in the office are part of the allure for Perez’s legal practice partner, Silvia Brett. “I love how open the office is. I love the spaces, including the high ceilings.” The vertical space in the first-floor Vanguard Attorneys office reaches nearly two stories high -- much higher ceilings than to be found in most downtown office buildings. 

James Hypes also works in the towering red-brick office hub at the offices of ASD | SKY, a nationwide multi-disciplinary architectural firm founded in Atlanta in 1963. They have offices in a dozen cities across the United States, with a location in Tampa since 1983. They’ve made a name for themselves locally working on a variety of notable projects such as the new St. Pete Pier. Those involved with the Tampa arm of ASD | SKY are familiar with working in historic quarters. Before moving to the former Florida Brewing Company in 2001, the Tampa branch of ASD | SKY had spent 15 years in the Tampa Theatre building.

“Frankly, we like the style of working in old buildings like ours and leaving a modern imprint on a historical industrial building,” Hypes, the principal at the Tampa branch of ASD | SKY, remarks. “There’s the exposed brick, exposed beams, and even different layers of paint showing, right down to the original green.” 

The office consumes a north wing and a south wing, providing the architectural firm with plenty of space for handling daily operations and hosting special events.

“We occupied both spaces since day one but have consolidated 25 seats on the north side and have the south side available for events, presentations, and conferences. So, there’s plenty of room to expand.” Hypes tells those who wish to convert an old building into a modern workspace to go into the project with flexibility and real compassion for preserving the past.

“Do it with an open mind and be respectful to the history of the structure. ... We are very happy to be here. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.” 
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Read more articles by Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez.

Joshua McMorrow-Hernandez is a freelance writer who was born and raised in Tampa. He earned his BA in English from the University of South Florida and spent more than three years as a full-time copywriter for a local internet marketing firm before striking out on his own to write for various blogs and periodicals, including TheFunTimesGuide, CoinValue and COINage magazine. He has also authored local history books, including Images of America: Tampa's Carrollwood and Images of Modern America: Tampa Bay Landmarks and Destinations, which are two titles produced by Arcadia Publishing.