TAMPA, Fla. - Robert Holsopple has remodeled a lot of buildings, but none quite like this one. The old cigar factory at 22nd Street and 3rd Avenue in Ybor City is the largest project he has ever tackled. It's also one of the most extensive restorations of a historic building ever in Tampa.
"With all the work we've done, we want it to look like we haven't done anything," explained Holsopple, a 66-year-old building contractor whose crew of craftsmen includes his two sons, Robbie and Brian.
Their goal is to make the building look like it did when it opened more than 100 years ago. They were hired by the Arturo Fuente Cigar Company to restore the old factory for its corporate headquarters.
"My direction from Carlito (Fuente) was to take it back like it was," Holsopple continued.
WHAT'S OLD IS NEW
The factory was built in 1902 by the Charles the Great cigar company. A few years later, it was purchased by the Arturo Fuente company. The brick building has the same general design as Tampa's dozens of other cigar factories of the time.
When Holsopple began restoring it several years ago, he found a worn out building in disrepair. But, in many cases, he has been able to repair and re-use what he found.
"When you walk down the hallway, you can look into these offices through 110-year-old glass," said Holsopple.
He and his workers brought in panes of glass from the old exterior windows -- many of which had been painted black in World War II -- to serve as office dividers. The waves and imperfections in the old glass are clearly visible, adding to the authentic atmosphere inside.
HOLES IN THE FLOOR
The wood floors on the third story also tell a story. When Holsopple restored the floors, he left dozens of punctures in the old boards. The holes were made by men using pitch forks to mix tobacco leaves. Holsopple says he wants the building to retain some of its original purpose -- a cigar-making machine.
"They just beat the daylights out of it, and now that shows up as being the character of the building. It has its scars," he offered.
HIDDEN IN THE ATTIC
For Arturo Fuente Cigars to operate more than a dozen offices here, the building needs modern conveniences and safety features. In the attic, Holsopple has hidden state-of-the-art systems for air conditioning, air purification, fire suppression, and internet.
But climbing farther up a small ladder, Holsopple beamed with pride as he returns to a place of 100 years ago, the restored cupola, the watchtower atop the roof of the cigar factory.
"This place was to spot ships coming in," he explained.
In the early 1900's, a young cigar worker would sit in the cupola to spot tobacco shipments and dispatch wagons to the port.
"Each cigar company had its own insignia on its flag, and they would watch for their flag on the masts of ships," Holsopple said.
THE BIG FINISH
The Fuentes plan an invitation-only event at the restored factory in November, but work won't be finished here until sometime in 2014. Fuente also plans a centennial celebration for the company.
They're not saying exactly what the cigar factory renovation is costing, only that it is a lasting piece of history and a tribute to the city where the company was formed.
"It's a gift to Tampa," added Holsopple, whose goal is to restore the building to look like he was never there rebuilding it.