In the late 1880s the immigrants who came to the Americas from Spain were largely bachelors or, if married came unaccompanied and sent for their families after earning sufficient funds for their passage. Consequently, there were a large number of Spaniards who had no one to care for them if they became ill or unable to work. Cuba was a Spanish possession until 1898 and Havana was the destination for many immigrants from Asturias, a province in northern Spain on the Bay of Biscay. In Havana, there existed organizations representing other regions in Spain such as Galicia, Cataluña and Castile. On May 2, 1886, Centro Asturiano de la Habana was formed to provide medical assistance for the collective benefit of its members.
Immigration from Cuba was not as restricted as it was from Europe. When the cigar industry came to Ybor City, there was a wave of immigration from Havana, where many had been employed in cigar manufacturing. In 1902, a group of 546 immigrants from the province of Asturias founded the Centro Asturiano de Tampa, one of the city’s first mutual aid societies and a branch of the original club established in Havana, Cuba. Centro Asturiano began in a two-room, wood-frame building on Seventh Avenue. Membership rapidly grew and the club moved to an impressive new building at the corner of Palm and Nebraska. When a fire destroyed the club, a beautiful three-story yellow brick and stone building in the Renaissance Mediterranean style was built in its place for $110,000. It still stands today as an iconic piece of Tampa’s history.
The entrance featured a sweeping stone staircase and the sides of the building were adorned with traditional Doric columns, round-arch windows and stone balustrades surrounding the roof. The local paper reported the Bonfoey and Elliot-designed club as “the most beautiful building in the South” The club provided a variety of entertainment. The theatre drew international actors and artists including Cuban composer and pianist Ernesto Lecuona who wrote 406 songs including the popular Malagueña. The theatre’s zarzuelas, a form of Spanish musical theatre, attracted so many stars to its stage that the Spanish publication El Arte de Teatro sent a full-time writer to Ybor City to cover productions.
A committee from the Centro Asturiano met with Dr. G.H. Altree, a local doctor and British philanthropist, who agreed to make his clinic available to members for their medical care. In 1905, the club constructed the Covadonga Sanatorium on Ola Street for $25,000. An expanded membership outgrew the facility and in 1928 the Centro Asturiano built a new hospital at 1302 21st Avenue. The hospital saved the community millions by taking care of its members. Providing health care for its members was one of the primary goals of the club. El cobrador, or the collector, would collect payments of about 50 cents per week from members for their individual coverage. Club membership assured families lifetime healthcare and provided free or low-cost medical care.
The Centro Asturiano offered a large gymnasium, a Cantina for dominoes and chess, billiard tables and bowling alleys. Offices for the directors of the club were located on the second floor, as well as the library, educational rooms, a smoking room, a ladies’ parlor, and a theater with elegant balconies. The Grand Ballroom on the third floor has fourteen original mirrors. Families that have been members for generations still speak of card games, dominoes, and the galas held in the Ballroom. Today, the Centro Asturiano hosts wedding receptions, comedy shows, musicals, recitals, bingo nights, auctions and more. The Centro Asturiano was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and is a designated heritage structure in the Ybor City Historic District.
For more information on the history of and current events at the Centro Asturiano, please visit their website at https://centroasturianotampa.org
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