In the semi-basement of the former Santaella Cigar Factory, hundreds of office chairs are stacked up where tobacco and leaves were once stored to keep them dry and cool. Dim daylight shines through the small basement windows on the north side of the building, barely illuminating the numerous desks that almost touch the low ceiling. Office cabinets block the old factory’s conveyor belt that used to transport the raw material for the hand-made cigars.
The Ellis-Van Pelt family bought the old cigar factory on North Armenia Avenue in 1997 to store and sell new and used office furniture. Since then, the family has been committed to preserving the 110-year-old building and using it to run an honest and reliable family business.
“Our secret and biggest asset is trust,” said the general manager and founder of the company, 86-year-old Gray Ellis. “We are easy to deal with, so once we have somebody in here, they’ll come back over and over again.”
When the Ellis-Van Pelt family was looking for a bigger storage area, the four-story former cigar factory did not seem to be the right fit for their business.
“When I first saw the building, I thought that there was no way we could afford it,” Gray Ellis said, laughing. “But it turned out the be an easy buy.”
Ellis-Van Pelt Inc. was founded in 1979 and has been family-owned for four generations. In a building that used to house approximately 1,000 workers, the furniture store today has a staff of about nine people, which includes the founder’s daughter and two sons. But Gray Ellis and his wife, Joann Ellis, are not completely sure of that number.
“We are three sitting right here,” Joann Ellis interjected, referring to her husband, herself and their longtime employee Sue Dortch, when Gray Ellis tried to count the company’s workforce.
Dortch has been a family friend since she was a little girl. She remembers meeting Joann Ellis’s mother in church for the first time. After working at a corporate job, she started helping out at the company’s office.
“I’ve always kind of stuck around,” Dortch said.
In the company’s office, time seems to have come to a standstill. Three dusty wooden chairs, hand-made and left behind by former cigar factory workers, are propped on a pedestal. Shelves hold memorabilia and pictures of the cigar factory from earlier years. The family is especially proud of a picture showing New York Yankees baseball player Babe Ruth, who used to come to the factory to buy his cigars.
“We are trying to maintain the character of the building as close to the original as possible,” Gray Ellis said.
The building’s primarily wooden architecture has mostly been left untouched, Bubba Ellis, the company’s president and one of the sons, pointed out. The cigar factory’s freight elevator and stairways are still in their original state.
“It is sad how much went away in Tampa and how many cigar factories have been torn down,” Dortch said. “You learn a lot when you work in this building.”
The family decided not to add the building to the National Register of Historic Places. Instead, they try to take care of the building as much as they can.
“It would cost a fortune to maintain the building according to their standards,” Gray Ellis said.
The former factory requires constant maintenance, and the family added beams to further support the building’s framework. They also have to make sure no rain will come in through the windows.
“With older buildings, the cost is double as it is,” Joann Ellis said.
The family only uses the basement and the first floor for their furniture storage. When rent for studios in Ybor City started rising, many artists were looking for other options. Only a year after the family bought the building, the first artist moved his studio to the former cigar factory.
“Word of mouth filled this place up quickly,” Gray Ellis said. “We didn’t plan this.”
Since the third and fourth floor were originally left as open space, artists were able to request how big they wanted each studio to be. Now, those floors are divided into several studios, which are occupied by approximately 40 artists. This part of the building has come to be known as the Santaella Studios for the Arts.
“When I looked for a studio, I couldn’t find anything I liked,” said Kerry Vosler, one of the artists in residence. “The rent is reasonable, and I could individualize it and make it my own.”
Vosler has always liked the neighborhood and the old building. Since she moved her studio to the old factory building in 2010, she has built a relationship with the Ellis-Van Pelt family.
“I’ve always loved the fact that they rented to artists,” she said. “The family is very supportive, and they all attend every art event that we have in the building.”
Today, the third and fourth floors are completely occupied by artists for years in advance. The owners even have artists on a waiting list in case a studio becomes available.
“We can provide them with a space to pursue their art passion besides their regular work,” Gray Ellis said.
Due to the age and condition of the building, the owners cannot rent space to every artist. No sculptors are allowed, since dust comes with the creation of their art. Potters are banned since their art requires too much heat and energy. Artists also must keep noise to a minimum.
“That would be too much for the building,” Dortch said, laughing.
While Gray and Joann Ellis are still actively working in the family business, they transferred the ownership of the building to their three children.
“We gave it to them a long time ago,” Joann Ellis interjected, looking up from her stack of papers.
Their business mostly runs on word-of-mouth advertising and listings on eBay and Craigslist. While the competition in the office furniture business keeps growing, the family is positive about the future of their company as long as they stay true to their values.
“Top notch people! They always offer excellent quality and value,” said one review on the Ellis-Van Pelt Inc. Facebook page.
The family hopes that improved housing and new developments in the area will also bring more people, so they can continue to run their business and maintain the building.