TAMPA — Standing in front of an old, run-down bungalow on East 4th Avenue, next to a vacant lot where colorful roosters and hens strut and peck at the ground, Michael Mincberg points out the ornate woodwork on the front porch, something he plans to save.
“It’s kind of fun to think about who built this house and who lived in it,” the in-fill developer said as his crews hammered inside historic residences in an area where cigar factory workers once lived.
Mincberg, with Sight Real Estate, bought an entire block from the Tamborello family with plans to build townhouses that would fit in with the historic duplexes and other structures along the neighborhood road.
Then, he said, he realized it would be a battle. The city of Tampa’s preservation division didn’t want to see the three 100-plus-year-old casitas on the property torn down or moved.
“I realized I could renovate the homes and still achieve the kind of returns I needed,” Mincberg said. “I realized bigger didn’t mean better. Sometimes, you hit a roadblock or hurdle and it’s discouraging, but sometimes it leads you to a better result. The creativity that is going into this is something I’m proud of.”
He still plans to build townhouses, but just one triplex tucked between the three historic bungalows. They are all being marketed under the name Casitas en Cuatro.
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At the turn of the last century, cigar-worker casitas lined Ybor streets.
Ignacio Haya and Vicente Martinez Ybor visited Tampa in 1885, then decided to build cigar factories in the area, according to historical information developed by the National Park Service.
Ybor purchased 40 acres and began construction on a factory. After 1886, he began developing a company town “with the hope of providing a good living and working environment so that cigar workers would have fewer grievances against owners.”
Some of those workers made the hand-rolled cigars, while others fashioned the attractive wooden cigar boxes, according to the park service. Others made cigar bands.
Most of the population at the time was made up of African Cubans and Spaniards. Many Sicilians also came, first to work in the Louisiana sugar cane fields, then here, where they operated restaurants, small businesses and farms.
The few casitas remaining on East 4th Avenue today are reminders of Ybor City’s rich history as the cigar capital of the world before the embargo with Cuba was imposed in 1960, mostly shutting down the industry here.
Many old, run-down homes along Interstate 4 through Ybor City were moved when the highway came through in the 1960s.
Others were lost in the name of progress, said lifelong Ybor resident Fran Costantino, now a Realtor with an office just down the street from Mincberg’s renovations.
“Those houses are considered contributing structures (to the historic district) and we’re just happy somebody got them. I’m a native. My family came over from Sicily in 1906, so I’m very familiar.
“A lot of the houses like that are no longer around because in (former Tampa Mayor) Sandy Freedman’s administration (1986-1995), rather than realizing what they were worth, they just bulldozed them down,” Costantino said.
“People are finally starting to realize if you want something historic, you have to pay because we have so few left,” she said, adding that the old-timers in Ybor City are thrilled to see projects like this save the remaining casitas.
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Walking into another of the old wooden houses, this one dubbed Casita Panatela — they’re all named for cigars — Mincberg points out the ceilings, all done in beautiful plank wood. Some of it is in bad shape, like most of the rest of the structure. His crew will take wood from the walls to replace the deteriorated wood on the ceilings, making them whole again.
The other two bungalows are Casita Robusto and Casita Corona.
At Casita Panatela and Casita Robusto, demolition crews are gutting the interiors.
“You can almost tell how many families lived here through the years by the layers of flooring,” Mincberg said, pointing to a remnant that hadn’t been pulled from the thick floor beams in Casita Robusto. No one ever removed the old flooring in these houses, he said. They just added new layers.
Henry Tamborello told Mincberg that families used to soak newspaper in kerosene, then lay it down and cover it with flooring, a way to keep termites at bay.
“We found a lot of newspapers, even a 1955 Tampa Tribune, old glass wine jugs under the house, an old Remington typewriter,” said Tito Colon, who is working on the demolition at 1810 E. 4th Ave. “You find neat stuff in historic houses.”
That’s half the fun of undertaking such a project, Mincberg said.
“I’ve done a bunch of old homes, and each comes with its own challenges,” he said. “But I have a personal passion for Ybor. It’s where my office is, and it’s a place a lot of people want to live, but there isn’t a lot available.”
The city of Tampa calls Mincberg’s project a winner for the historic district.
“He’s attempting not only to restore those structures and bring them back to residential use, but also introducing new construction to fill in the gaps where demolition has occurred over the years,” said Dennis Fernandez, historic preservation manager for the city.
The casitas were all built between 1885 and 1940, he said, so preserving them helps maintain the area’s historic period.
Mincberg could have tried to prove that the structures were too far gone to restore, or he could have asked to move them, Fernandez said. But the Barrio Latino Commission, responsible for preserving the historic fabric of the district and maintaining its architectural integrity, always prefers that structures be left in their historic locations and restored, he said.
“It’s a nice contradiction from someone more interested in maximizing a buildable site,” Fernandez said. “(Mincberg) obviously is sensitive to the historic environment he is working in.”
The Tamborellos are excited to see the old structures come back to life, as well, Joe Tamborello said. He and his brother, Henry, and sister, Rose Ann Tamborello Parsons, sold the land to Mincberg. Their grandfather came from Italy around 1900 and eventually purchased the houses.
“From an historic factor, especially, the Barrio doesn’t want them torn down,” Tamborello said. “This guy, Mincberg, knows what he’s doing.”
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Tamborello, who grew up on East 4th Avenue and whose family has operated the Tamborello Service Station there for 70 years, recalls that a family named Dozier inhabited the “high house,” or, as Mincberg refers to it, Casita Corona. Mendozas and Giglias lived in the other homes at one point, he said.
He also remembers a house next to one of the bungalows Mincberg is restoring. It burned in a fire when Tamborello was a kid. That is the lot where the chickens now spend their days strutting and pecking.
When the historic homes go on the market, they’ll likely sell in the mid-$200,000 range, Mincberg said. They’ll still have metal rooftops and their front porches, important to the historic fabric of Ybor City. They’ll also still sport wooden siding, and the outside light fixtures and door hardware will be period appropriate as required by city ordinances.
They’ll also get some upgrades, like laundry closets and larger bathrooms. Casita Corona, the house with the fancy woodwork on the front porch, will get an entire addition with a new living room, a master bedroom and a two-car garage, more than doubling its original 670 square feet.
The other two homes are just over 1,200 square feet, with two bedrooms and two baths.
“They are going to be designed for urban dwellers who want character,” Mincberg said.
The block-and-stucco triplex he plans to build will be two stories. The roof line on the outside is designed to make the building look smaller than it will actually be to keep it to scale with the neighborhood.
The townhomes will be between 1,995 square feet and 2,035 square feet, each with a one-car attached garage.
The end units will have three bedrooms and 2.5 baths, and the center unit will have two bedrooms and 2.5 baths.
The architecture is historically inspired, Mincberg said. “And you have to keep it to scale.”
Recreating an entire block in Ybor City gives buyers comfort to purchase, rather than buying in an area where nothing around a house has been restored, Mincberg said.
“I really liked the idea of blending the old with the new, and I talked to a lot of historic preservationists. We’re creating new history with this and paying homage to what is here already.”
In his cellphone, Mincberg keeps a copy of his favorite quote by William Murtagh, first keeper of the National Register of Historic Places.
“It has to be said that at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present over a mutual concern for the future.”
“We’re part of an urban renaissance,” Mincberg said.