Cigar Factory Special Report

Margaret Rodriguez has never lived more than two miles from the old Berriman-Morgan Cigar Factory, where her parents, aunts and uncles once produced premier cigars.

While driving past the abandoned, decayed building the past 30 years, she imagined the yellow brick factory in its glory, when she went there as a little girl to watch her father roll cigars.

Margaret Rodriguez grew up in and around the old Morgan Cigar Factory where her parents worked. Crystal L. Lauderdale/Tampa Tribune

Margaret Rodriguez grew up in and around the old Morgan Cigar Factory where her parents worked. Crystal L. Lauderdale/Tampa Tribune

Tampa engineer Nicholas Jammal had a remarkably similar vision. He was so enchanted by the once-proud building, even with its leaky roof and rotting woodwork, that he bought it and launched an extensive restoration project.

The two met when Rodriguez stopped by the factory to thank him for saving the West Tampa landmark that was such an important part of her childhood.

They’ve since become friends, swapping old photos and stories of the factory and watching the building return to its more glorious past.

Restoration To Light Up A Cigar City Icon

Nicholas Jammal is restoring the old Morgan Cigar Factory. Crystal L. Lauderdale/Tampa Tribune

Nicholas Jammal is restoring the old Morgan Cigar Factory. Crystal L. Lauderdale/Tampa Tribune

When Nicholas Jammal first saw the old Morgan Cigar Factory in 1994, it had been abandoned for 23 years. Nearly all of its 100 windows were blocked up, its roof leaked, and rats scurried amid hypodermic needles left behind by homeless people camping inside.

But he had a vision.

While others saw only a decrepit building sprouting weeds, he saw a symbol of Tampa.

“It would be the perfect picture to describe Tampa’s heritage, culture and the cigar industry that made Tampa,” he says.

He knew, with his structural engineering background and passion for historic preservation, he could bring the building back to its golden years of the early 1900s, when Tampa reigned as Cigar City.

During that time, West Tampa and Ybor City had as many as 200 factories. Morgan was considered among the very best, producing 11 million Havana cigars a year.

Only 26 buildings remain from those glory days. Jammal, 43, is determined to restore this one as a tribute to West Tampa.

“Anybody can build a new building,” he says. “But it takes a lot of detail and a lot of commitment and vision to restore a building to its originality.”

The Morgan Cigar Factory, on the corner of Howard Avenue and LaSalle Street in West Tampa, in the 1930s.Tampa Tribune File Photo

The Morgan Cigar Factory, on the corner of Howard Avenue and LaSalle Street in West Tampa, in the 1930s.Tampa Tribune File Photo

SOME OF MARGARET RODRIguez’s first memories center on the Morgan Cigar Factory, where 11 members of her family worked.

Nearly 60 years before Jammal first saw the factory, Rodriguez would go there with her brothers to watch their father, Absalom Blanco, roll cigars and their mom, Lola, strip center stems from tobacco leaves.

“We usually went to see them on Fridays, maybe because it was slower, since it was payday,” says Rodriguez, 77, who works with her husband in their upholstery business. “My daddy was paid in silver dollars then, not folding money.”

Her father worked at the factory for 34 years, so it always felt like home, Rodriguez says on the way to see the progress Jammal has made.

Inside, she looks around and seems to see ghosts from her childhood everywhere.

“My daddy worked on the second floor,” she says, climbing the same stairway she did as a child.

After looking at an old photograph of her father among other cigar rollers at work, she stares at the exact spot where he stood in the picture and her eyes fill with tears.

“My daddy was only 5-foot-3, but he was a good ballplayer – a shortstop, No. 15. They called him El Nino,” she says. “Everybody in West Tampa had a nickname.”

Factory owner W.T. Morgan Sr. was a baseball fan, so he let ballplayers such as her father take off work to follow the semi-pro circuit, promising that they would have jobs when they got back.

On the third floor, she jokes that her mother was a stripper – but not that kind,” she says, laughing.

She remembers her mother and her mother’s twin sister stripping tobacco with their backs to the windows, light streaming in over their shoulders, a barrel of tobacco beside them. Her mother, who was born in Cuba, was just 12 when she started work at another cigar factory in West Tampa.

Like most cigarworkers, Rodriguez’s family lived in a shotgun-style house with a tin roof. Theirs was on Cherry Street, a half-mile north of the factory, with mango and lemon trees in the yard. They rented it for 27 years; they could never afford to buy it. The house is still there, with the same decorative white trim on the front porch.

When her father got home from work, he hung his jacket on the clothesline to air out the tobacco smell. Then, the whole family ate dinner together in the kitchen. In the early days, her father would tell them what el lector, or the reader, read to him and other cigarworkers that day.

Lectors read to cigarworkers all day long until radios replaced them in the 1930s. At a time when many people could barely read, Tampa cigar rollers were familiar with “Don Quixote” and other classics and knew the news from around the world and close to home.

“My daddy loved the poetry and the stories, which were like soap operas,” Rodriguez says. “Everything in the old days was beautiful. That’s why I live in the past. We were poor, but we didn’t know it.”

The Morgan Cigar Factory, on the corner of Howard Avenue and LaSalle Street in West Tampa. Crystal L. Lauderdale/Tampa Tribune

The Morgan Cigar Factory, on the corner of Howard Avenue and LaSalle Street in West Tampa. Crystal L. Lauderdale/Tampa Tribune

JAMMAL’S MEMORIES ARE FAR different. He grew up in Beirut, Lebanon, the son of an architect-contractor who restored buildings throughout Lebanon and England. As a teen, Jammal made spending money by working on his dad’s job sites, carrying block, removing nails from lumber, and mixing sand with cement and taking it to masonry master builders.

He came here 25 years ago to major in engineering at the University of South Florida. He fell in love with Tampa and decided to stay after graduating.

After a stint with an engineering firm, he started his own, specializing in environmental and structural engineering – a background that served him well when he decided to buy the Morgan factory.

When he first saw the factory, he knew its location on Howard Avenue, just south of Interstate 275 halfway between West Shore Boulevard and downtown, would make it ideal for professional offices. It already had been designated a national and local historic landmark, which meant he could take advantage of federal tax credits and local property tax exemptions.

He bought it in 2004 for $600,000, partly with a loan earmarked for historic preservation projects like his. It took 18 months – much longer than he expected – to get all his plans approved. It might have taken longer if Tampa City Councilwoman Mary Alvarez had not streamlined the approval process for him. Her mother was a cigar roller at the factory in the 1940s.

While Jammal worked at restoring the factory this summer, Israel began bombing Beirut, forcing his parents to flee to a bomb shelter. For a month, he worried about them and other Lebanese families. He feared, too, for Lebanon’s historic buildings, some of which his father had restored after the Lebanese civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990.

“My fear of those buildings being bombed randomly strengthened my bond with the cigar factory,” Jammal says.

He inherited his devotion to historic preservation from both parents, Roda and Aliya Jammal. His father once told him their passion for historic buildings may come from the fact that their ancestors are from Baalbeck, an ancient city in Lebanon known for its ruins.

Over the past year, Jammal and his employees at Jammal Engineering fixed the factory’s roof. Parts of the tongue-in-groove bead board ceiling were missing, so they relocated materials from other parts of the building and flawlessly blended them. The crew also made new ceiling boards, so it’s hard to tell where the old stop and the new begin.

They took hundreds of concrete blocks out of the 100 window openings and designed replicas of the original windows and frames.

Some original green shutters survived, so Jammal made a replica of one as a pattern for his workers to copy. They brought the old brick back to its original color, matched missing bricks and created a replacement for the column base at the entranceway.

They shored up other column bases, replicated existing arches and moldings and made doors to match originals. Next, they plan to put the old water tower back up on its perch on the south side of the factory.

Jammal hopes the work will be done by March. He plans to rent space to architects, engineers or lawyers and maybe save a corner space for himself on the third floor.

Dennis Fernandez, preservation manager for the city of Tampa, says Jammal has “gone beyond what was required in our program. We require a rehabilitation. His method has really been restoration. He applied a higher standard. That’s a personal choice we’re happy about, but it requires more work.”

RODRIGUEZ NEVER WENT inside the factory at its very worst. So it doesn’t seem that different from when she was a little girl.

Her father and his friends took great pride in being cigar rollers in this factory, she says.

“They would come to work in sports coats, dress pants, white shirts and ties and hats. Women wore dresses, not pants suits. They were very proud, yes indeed.”

On the third floor, she looks out the window and remembers the yellow rain trees that once grew in the yard below. She stares across the interstate toward Main Street and remembers the old movie house, the West Tampa Bank and the little homes like hers that used to be there, all gone now.

Then, she focuses back on the cigar factory, one of the few links left to her parents and brothers, who have been dead for years.

“These buildings were made to last forever,” she says. “They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”


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