Brief History of West Tampa: From its start to today

Stories of Tampa’s cigar industry are more often tied to Ybor City than to any other area in Tampa due to its historic importance and continued popularity as a draw for tourists and locals alike. That tends to leave West Tampa undeservedly dismissed simply as Tampa’s “other” Latin district. In truth, its history is as rich and varied as any community in the state.

Though the majority of West Tampa’s citizens were Cuban, the city was founded by a Scotsman: Hugh Campbell Macfarlane. He arrived in Tampa in 1884, and as a city and state’s attorney, he helped re-establish the City of Tampa. He also purchased several hundred acres of swampland on the western bank of the Hillsborough River.

Through generous loans and land grants, Macfarlane and his partners enticed cigar factory owners to relocate their businesses from other cities, like Key West and New York. The City of West Tampa was incorporated with 2,815 residents on May 18, 1895, and survived as a separate municipality until January 1, 1925, when it was annexed by the City of Tampa.

First-gen cigarmakers

West Tampa’s first generation of cigar manufacturers includes Cuesta, Rey, & Co., Ellinger Brothers, and the Armena Cigar Company. The inadvertent misspelling of that last one on street signs has led some to think there were Armenian immigrants among the Spaniards and Cubans.

Hugh Macfarlane did not build West Tampa on his own. Macfarlane depended greatly on his wife, Frances Pettingil Macfarlane. It is said that Mrs. Macfarlane had the head for business, while Mr. Macfarlane used his power and influence to foster the growth of the promising cigar colony. Very little is known about Frances Macfarlane. Prior to her marriage to Hugh Macfarlane, she was a successful businesswoman and the owner of Pettingil and Company, a stationary and bookstore, which featured a lending library.

While still in its infancy, West Tampa was called everything from a wild-west town to an alligator hole (the area was first nicknamed La Caimaneria, or place of alligators). Travel to and from West Tampa was difficult until the Macfarlanes extended the Tampa streetcar line into the development, but it was not until 1903 that the West Tampa City Council began paving its streets, first with clay from Bartow and later with bricks. Macfarlane also constructed the Fortune Street Bridge over the Hillsborough River to connect West Tampa to Tampa and Ybor City.  

West Tampa’s growth was rapid. By 1900, the population had eclipsed that of Tallahassee and by 1912, it was Florida’s fifth largest city, with 8,258 residents -- larger than Miami and Orlando at the time. By comparison, the City of Tampa’s 1912 population was over 40,000, ranking it second to Jacksonville among Florida cities. Almost half of the residents of the Tampa area, and more so in West Tampa, were immigrants or had at least one foreign-born parent.

Next-gen cigarmakers

Among the second wave of cigar manufacturers to arrive in West Tampa was Antonio Santaella, who left an indelible mark on West Tampa through his still-standing cigar factory. Billed as the largest cigar factory in the world, the A. Santaella & Co. building on Armenia Avenue and Spruce Street is a classic example of cigar factory architecture. Like most Tampa cigar factories, it is built on an east-west axis so sunlight remains fairly even as it comes through the north and south facing windows. Those windows are also slightly larger on the south side, which helps to draw fresh air into the building – an important feature in an era before air conditioning. Postcard of the Santaella cigar factory on Armenia, circa 1910.

The cigar factory on Armenia was not Santaella’s first location. His company had endured two fires, both of which destroyed the factory buildings he was using. He did not take any chances with his third building. After the devastating West Tampa Fire of 1904 torched his second factory building, Santaella purchased the rest of the property on the block where his factory once stood and then built his new factory in the center of that block -- providing a buffer should another fire break out in the neighborhood. In addition, he installed one of the earliest fire suppression systems within his building. Finally, if all else failed, he built a fire station for the West Tampa Fire Department next door to his factory.

The economic health of West Tampa was tied directly to that of the cigar industry. Ravaged by strikes in the 1920s and 1930s, and hobbled further by the Great Depression, the industry was damaged beyond the point of a full recovery. Following World War II, returning soldiers used money from their GI Bills to build homes in newer suburbs, joining the ranks of other former West Tampa residents. Always more welcoming to African-Americans than most neighborhoods, West Tampa’s black population began to increase dramatically in the 1950s and 1960s, in part the result of the loss of African-American housing closer to downtown Tampa.

In the 1970s, Interstate 275 cut through West Tampa, contributing to the degradation of the surrounding neighborhood. Despite these obstacles, West Tampa persevered. New uses have been found for the factory buildings, from office space to loft apartments. The Santaella building, which now houses art studios for local artists, was recently purchased and is undergoing intensive restoration.

West Tampa’s business district remains active to this day. The Centro Español building on Howard Avenue, long empty, is experiencing a new life. The structure was purchased by the City of Tampa and has since been used by the Tampa Urban League, as a temporary location for the Tampa Museum of Art, and, currently, home to the Hillsborough Education Foundation. The neighborhood survives and stands as a legacy to a proud, independent past.

Rodney Kite-Powell is the Director of the Touchton Map Library at the Tampa Bay History Center. He can be reached by phone, (813) 228-0097, or email, [email protected]. Support for publication of this column comes from the Tampa Bay History Center. Read additional history columns by Kite-Powell:

Before Water Street Tampa: A brief history of the Garrison Section of Downtown Tampa.

Tampa Armature Works building: From public transportation to public market
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