Can't Go Home Again

Hometown architect Ken Garcia isn't a slave to the past

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click to enlarge TIES THAT BEND: Architect Ken Garcia, whose - grandparents were Spanish, in Spain -- a chic new - tapas bar and restaurant on the first floor of his latest - project. - VALERIE MURPHY
VALERIE MURPHY
TIES THAT BEND: Architect Ken Garcia, whose grandparents were Spanish, in Spain -- a chic new tapas bar and restaurant on the first floor of his latest project.

Ken Garcia's grandmother once lived in a beautiful two-story house with a wraparound veranda in West Tampa. Three laurel oaks stood in the front yard. "The interstate took it," he says with a sad smile. Now, only the trees are left to remind him of what used to be. "I would smile when I drove by them on the interstate because I was driving through her kitchen. ... It's sad what the interstate did to Ybor and West Tampa. What the interstate didn't do, urban renewal finished."

He feels that sadness not just as a Tampa native, but as an architect, a lover of buildings and a Hispanic with roots in both West Tampa and Ybor City. His grandparents came from Spain to work in the cigar factories, his mother's family settling in Ybor, and his father's in West Tampa. Garcia grew up in West Tampa, but his family operated a department store in Ybor, so he spent every Saturday there, hanging out and going to see movies at the Ritz Theater.

His roots give Garcia a special appreciation for Tampa's heritage, but in his work, he is no aesthetic slave to the past. "My interest has always been in new design," he says. It was his partner, the late Jan Abell, who sought out the historic preservation and restoration projects Abell Garcia Architects is known for, including the Friday Morning Musicale, Tampa Theatre, Plant Hall, St. Paul AME Church, Centro Espanol and El Pasaje, to name just a few.

Because his firm is known for its preservation projects, Garcia's forward-looking taste surprises some people. As a member of the Barrio Latino Commission, he voted to approve the controversial design for a contemporary nightclub building on Seventh Avenue in Ybor. Critics of the project thought the building should reflect the Spanish colonial character of the district, but Garcia disagreed. "I don't respect architecture that mimics the past. It should reflect the time it's built. You don't want an area to become a theme park; in a way, that's what Ybor has become."

The sleek, elegant design work coming out of the firm these days also surprises people. "It's historic, but it's something new," he says. MacFarlane Center, a school on MacDill Avenue across the street from MacFarlane Park, is a case in point. The original school was built in the 1920s on land that had once been a dump, and the ground had settled over time, rendering the building unsafe. Garcia had the original school's ornate cast-stone cornices and beautiful arched entryway salvaged before it was demolished. He mounted them on the new building, a simple white stucco box. "The building in a sense becomes a canvas ... for the display of historic pieces," he says. "Is it historic preservation? No, but it operates within the context of the site."

Context is everything to Garcia. "If it's new construction, it should look new," he says. "If it's in a historic context, it should gesture to it ... but not mime it."

Garcia's most recent project, now almost finished, is transforming the 1920s building at 513 Tampa St. into a mixed-use structure. Loft-style offices on the second and third floors will retain their original exposed structural elements and industrial materials. The first floor, once a ladies' clothing store, had been remodeled so many times that little of its original character remained. Spain, the chic new tapas bar and restaurant that occupies that space, makes no attempt to mimic the building's old appearance.

Garcia's new project is a seven-unit condominium in the Channel District, which is fast becoming the upscale urban neighborhood, with old warehouses taking on new life as loft apartments and studios, and new buildings with edgy urban designs. Garcia's condominium definitely qualifies as the latter. "It's very modern," he says. "They're true lofts with big spaces."

His design evokes the industrial and shipping functions of the district by using stacked shipping containers as a visual metaphor, reinforced by the use of industrial materials such as corrugated aluminum. The result is a two-story building consisting of a long box — the penthouse — sitting atop two smaller ones, each of which house three apartments and a lobby. Deep balconies and floor-to-ceiling windows made of blue glass yield views from every room, and a large architectonic canopy shelters a rooftop lookout terrace.

In general, Garcia doesn't give high marks to Tampa's architectural landscape. He characterizes most of the downtown buildings as "urban cliches," except for Harry Wolf's fabulous tower at the corner of Ashley Drive and Kennedy Boulevard.

However, despite the historic buildings we've lost and the lackluster design of many newer ones, Garcia remains optimistic. The new Tampa Museum of Art building, designed by Rafael Vinoly, will bring some architectural distinction to the city, he says. "Like it or hate it, it's still going to be a very important, very interesting building." He's also hoping that some of the design in the Channel District will "represent an era of growing up architecturally" for Tampa. "When people see designs that excite them, maybe they'll become more interested in architecture."

Let's hope he's right because when people care about the design of buildings, they are less likely to allow their history to be obliterated by the wrecking ball. And they are more likely to demand — and get — new buildings that reflect the unique character of their time and place.

A Little Help from His Friends
Photographer and cultural institution Bud Lee remains disabled after suffering a stroke this summer, and his insurance does not pay for the physical therapy that could restore his mobility. His friends are planning a Jan. 24 auction to raise funds for him. They request donations of artwork and other goods and services (e.g., massage, wine and fruit baskets) to be auctioned off as well as food and beverages for the evening. Artwork should be dropped off between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Jan. 17 and 18 at the Lotus Room Yoga Studio and Art Gallery, 1101 W. Kennedy Blvd. Call David Audet at 813-935-9232 for details.

Contributing Editor Susan F. Edwards can be reached at [email protected].

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