They love cigars at a historic Tampa church

TAMPA — A church service has not been held in the 115-year-old First Congregational Church building in decades.

But it still feels like a place of worship, with the deity being Arturo Fuente, the Tampa-rooted international cigar company.

Fuente cigar labels are displayed on stained glass windows.

Fuente family photos adorn wall space throughout the four-story, 8,000-square-foot building.

Fuente ashtrays are placed on tables.

There are even Carlos Fuente, Jr. bobbleheads for sale.

“In a weird way, I guess it looks like” a church in Fuente, Steven Shlemon said with a laugh. “But we’re only talking about cigars here, and Fuente is one of the biggest cigar makers in the world.”

Shlemon is Membership Coordinator for Grand Cathedral Cigars, a cigar shop and lounge built inside the renovated historic church building. It opened in January.

A members-only area at Grand Cathedral Cigars, a cigar lounge located inside the former First Congregational Church, a historic building in Tampa Heights. The stained glass window features the Fuente Fuente Opus X cigar label. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

Located at 2201 N. Florida Ave. in Tampa Heights, the first floor features a full bar, outdoor patio, humidor, gift shop, and lounge area. It is open to the public Sunday to Thursday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.

The second through fourth floors include a sports bar, private cigar lockers, conference rooms, and a private party room in the bell tower. These are open 24 hours a day for members only.

The Fuente company, founded and based in Tampa, is the most obvious local historic tobacco family with a presence at Grand Cathedral Cigars, but it is not the only one.

Related: You can visit Tampa’s Newman Cigar Factory and “like stepping back in time”

The hunting trophies hanging on the walls were provided by the Oliva Tobacco Company.

Neither Fuente nor Oliva are part of the ownership group, Shlemon said. “We just have a good relationship with them.”

Shlemon’s friend Lance Barton has owned the building since 2006 and was originally the headquarters of an insurance company there. But in recent years, he’s been looking to do something “grander,” Shlemon said.

They considered a brewery, but possible partners fell through. Then they got a call from Angela Yue, owner of a cigar lounge in San Diego.

Shlemon, who is also a real estate agent, had put the building up for rent and Yue was flying to Tampa to scout it for a cigar lounge.

“We loved the idea and it turned into this business,” Shlemon said. “Two and a half years later, here we are.”

Looking up at the first floor from the upstairs balcony of Grand Cathedral Cigars, a cigar lounge located inside the former First Congregational Church, a historic building in Tampa Heights.
Looking up at the first floor from the upstairs balcony of Grand Cathedral Cigars, a cigar lounge located inside the former First Congregational Church, a historic building in Tampa Heights. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
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Inside the First Congregational Church in 1919.
Inside the First Congregational Church in 1919. [ Courtesy of John Cinchett ]

John Cinchett, author of Historic Tampa Churches, applauded the company for finding a modern use for a historic building.

“Not only is it one of the most historic structures in Tampa Heights,” he said, “but it also serves as a symbol of those countless men and women who have worked selflessly for the growth of the church, who served the poor and underprivileged during Tampa’s early years, a time when there was no government assistance.

Related: Saint Leo University adds satellite campus in historic Tampa building

The first Congregational Church was established in 1885 in a small wood-frame chapel on Florida Ave. and Royal Street, Cinchett said. “One of the church’s benefactors was OH Platt, who founded Hyde Park.

“Mr. Platt died in 1893 and he left $10,000 of his estate to the church, which they used to establish their building fund.

The building at 2201 N. Florida Ave. was erected in 1906 at a cost of $16,350 and dedicated to Platt “to honor his contributions”, Cinchett said.

The first Congregational Church in 1919.
The first Congregational Church in 1919. [ Courtesy of John Cinchett ]

First Congregational sold the building to the Polish American Democratic Club in 1959 for $24,000, Cinchett said. The organization remained there for about 20 years, “but at some point the old church was abandoned and fell into disrepair”.

News Archives report that the building was repeatedly cited for code violations throughout the 1980s, then condemned in 1990 when homeless people lit a bonfire inside. The fire ravaged the structure.

“The roof collapsed,” Cinchett said. “All the stained glass has been broken.”

Lightning then struck the building and collapsed a wall in 1997, according to the News Archive. Architect William Muse purchased the church in 1999, stabilized the structure, and gave it to Nick Cutro in 2005 for use as a community center for the arts. This adventure lasted a year.

Barton then bought the building for around $1 million, according to the Hillsborough County Property Appraiser website.

Exterior of Grand Cathedral Cigars, a cigar lounge located inside the former First Congregational Church, a historic building in Tampa Heights.
Exterior of Grand Cathedral Cigars, a cigar lounge located inside the former First Congregational Church, a historic building in Tampa Heights. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]

The exterior looks like it did 114 years ago except for the modern stained glass windows, Shlemon said, and they haven’t changed much to the interior shell.

“We restored the old wooden floors rather than replacing them,” he said. “The doors are original. We are told that the hexagram cobblestone floors are originals, so we kept those as well.

They even kept the burn marks in the walls of the fire.

“We wanted to honor history,” Shlemon said. “All.”

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