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Social club celebrates 100 years of history

Centro Asturiano was born in 1902, providing medical care and social support to members. It's now a living museum.

By CINDY RUPERT
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 8, 2002


photo
[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Centro Asturiano was founded in 1902. It's current building was built in 1914 and is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the crowded ballroom, a dancer dressed as a gangster spins a poodle-skirted twirler. In the bar, old men play dominoes the way their Cuban fathers did, in clouds of cigar smoke. In the library, a history buff opens the massive bookcase to examine a hand-illustrated, leather-clad book with gilded edges and the authoritative smell of age.

It's just another night at the living museum that is Centro Asturiano de Tampa.

The social club at 1913 N Nebraska Ave. will begin celebrating its 100th anniversary Saturday at 8 p.m. with a free concert by the Florida Orchestra. The program will include music from Cuba, Spain and Mexico, including excerpts from Carmen and The Barber of Seville.

Self-taught Plant High School graduate John Roger Benson will play the Spanish bagpipes.

The orchestra will perform music by Malaguenacomposer Ernesto Lecuona -- who appeared at Centro Asturiano in the 1950s.

Octavio Infiesta, center, concedes a game of dominos while Ralph Rubio, left, and Charles Barreto, right, look on.

The 1950s were only middle age for a grand building with long roots to Tampa's Latin communities.

These days, William Garcia is keeper of its keys. He knows the nooks and crannies of Centro Asturiano just as well as he knows its history.

His parents are from the Asturias province of Spain, where the club gets its name. A group of what he calls "independent-minded" Asturians formed an Ybor City branch of Havana's Centro Asturiano club in 1902. The mutual aid society provided medical care and social support to members.

"It was like an early HMO," said Garcia, the club's community relations manager.

At first, some local doctors disapproved of the club's "socialized medicine," he said. But members persevered and built a hospital in 1905 at Jackson Avenue and Ola Street, then another in 1927 on 21st Avenue and 13th Street, which served members until financial problems closed it in 1990, Garcia said.

The original clubhouse, built at Nebraska and Palm avenues, was destroyed by fire in 1912 and rebuilt in 1914 with a bowling alley, billiard room, gymnasium, restaurant, bar, ballroom and theater.

William Garcia, community relations manager for Centro Asturiano, sits in the club's theater. The social club celebrates its 100th anniversary this year with a series of events.

The yellow brick building, with its mosaic tile floors and tin ceilings, is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

The two-story theater inside, where Saturday's concert will be performed, is draped in red velvet and folklore.

Garcia tells of a legend born of an appearance by Italian tenor Enrico Caruso: The singer was so moved by the ovation he received from eavesdroppers on the sidewalk that he gave a second performance on the steps.

The club's 300 members and an auxiliary group called Las Damas have scheduled two more February events besides tomorrow's concert to celebrate the centennial: Artifacts from the Museo de la Emigracion, a museum in Asturias, Spain, will be on display indefinitely, beginning Saturday. And a folkloric group from Asturias will perform on Feb. 24 at 4:30 p.m.

-- For more information, or to reserve a free ticket for tomorrow night's concert, call 229-2214 between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m.

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