The Castle: A Living History

“How long have you been coming here?”
“Probably since about 2004”
“Oh wow. That’s the year I was born!”

This was part of the conversation I had with a baby goth on her 18th birthday recently while waiting in line outside the local goth club. As we stood there chatting and I came to the chilling realization that I have been frequenting this establishment for the entirety of this young woman’s life, a feeling of local pride and inspiration came to me. The rest of the night I had a much deeper appreciation for the long history of my favorite place–and where I have always considered to be my spiritual home–the world renowned nightclub, The Castle.

Hidden away on the back streets of the Ybor City district of Tampa, Florida, looms the building whose crenelated façade, stained glass windows and square tower harken back to the Cuban and Spanish influences which marked the beginnings of the sprawling city which has been built around it. Throughout its lengthy history, The Castle has served as a nexus of both a political and social community. Over the past near-century, The Castle has been transformed into a vinculum of art, movement and personal expression. It is easy to see that this belovèd building has held meaning for many disparate groups over generations of time.

A Capitalist Town With Communist Roots
Prior to 1885, most of the area around Tampa Bay was sparsely populated by the Floridian pioneer families who had begun their southward expansion, starting from the end of the Civil War. It was at this time that the Spanish industrialist Vincente Martinez-Ybor founded the corporate town of Ybor City, which established a unique, multi-ethnic community populated almost completely by immigrants. Here arose the cigar rolling factories which would be producing 500 million hand rolled cigars each year by the early 20th century.

7th Ave, Ybor City 1925
7th Ave, La Setima (sic), was and remains the high street of Ybor
The Ybor Labor Temple, 1930’s

In 1930, the structure located at 2004 N 16th street was built by the Order of the Golden Eagle, and began its first life as the Ybor Labor Temple, while the building itself was formally called the Castle of Christopher Columbus (Castillo Cristobal Colon). At this time, labor guilds and unions were separated by race. In a multiracial town like Ybor, this resulted in the construction of many different guild halls, of which only a handful remain. The Ybor Labor Temple would then serve as the communist labor union for white Cuban immigrants. The very next year, the YLT would become the center of a clash between police and cigar workers whose right to assemble was being suppressed. Once the first arrest was made, the crowd of several hundred workers rioted against the authorities, resulting in an even harsher response from the governor on the “threat” of Communism.

The neighborhood surrounding the Labor Temple, early 20th cent. Few of these buildings remain today.
The Labor Temple as it appeared in the 1940’s
A lector reading to factory workers, 1930s. Lectors were not factory employees but were paid from the pooled wages of the workers themselves. As Ybor City was multicultural, some could read papers in English, Spanish or Italian and translate on the spot. Because of the lectors even those illiterate factory workers could be well versed in classical literature, news and politics.

Cigar City In Decline
Once a proud and booming center of industry owing to its many cigar rolling factories, the cigar business had already been in decline by the later 1950’s. Then, in 1962 everything came to a sudden halt when diplomatic tensions between the United States and Castro’s Cuba resulted in the trade embargo which has remained in place to this day. As the cigar factories closed, the communities who built the city of Ybor dispersed for other opportunities while few remained. By the 1990s, Ybor had fallen into neglect. The main strip of 7th Avenue was not yet considered a “destination” spot. Before then, the only bar nearby was the Spanish Park Tavern, Las Novedades (also later a nightclub called Czar), which held a record for most consecutive years with a murder. It was in this transitional period that the new foundations of The Castle were to be laid down.

Performers in Spanish costume, La Columbia Restaurant, 1968
Abandoned tourist kiosk, 1980

Darkness On The Horizon
After the massive swelling of the Goth subculture in the 1980’s, its evolution into the future, though fragmentary, was still shepherded by the musical artists who embraced and expanded on those intersectional themes of the macabre, the romantic, and the melancholic into the 90’s. It was in this new decade that the post-punk movement would mature into forms of universal influence. As gothic subcultures began to further develop in the United States, the time was exactly right for the arrival of the next incarnation of the old Labor Temple.

Empty buildings on the streets of Ybor, 1985


In 1992 the aging building was sold. At the time of the city’s annual Latin-flavored Halloween celebration (Guavaween), “The Castle” opened its doors to the world. The ground floor saloon, which had always served as a bar since the very beginning, first opened as an intimate watering-hole with strong drinks and only a jukebox for entertainment. At the time of purchase, the large upstairs space, once rented out to Union members for parties, could be found covered in old wood paneling and the ceiling full of bullet holes. Over the years the nightclub has had many renovations, most famously its saloon bar which boasts a cobblestoned top and a moat with running water coursing around patrons’ drinks. “Every castle has to have a moat”, said John Landsman, one of the longest staff members.

Current view of the courtyard. In the early days of The Castle, bonfires and more intimate gatherings would happen here. It is now an outside dance area.


After trying many themes for its events: attention was brought to a group of wayward goths who met on weekends across Tampa Bay in St Petersburg. These folks would get together on a weekly basis, dressed to the nines and needed somewhere better than the old Bennigan’s to hang out at. So began Goth Night at The Castle, every Friday. Since then not only has The Castle outlasted most of the other night spots in Ybor which were present when it first opened, but it has become world famous for its nightlife and the eccentric crowd it caters to. It has been recognized internationally as the premier dance club for alternative electronic music: EBM, dark electro, synth pop, goth, power noise and many others. 

The upper hall is decorated in lush furniture, chandeliers, a large glass top bar, and state of the art sound and lighting. 2022.
The Red Room. A more intimate space where specialty cocktails are served. Also the location of the Tower, which in the 21st century has had the upper floor beams removed, revealing the top of the tower interior.
The most recently designed space, The Dungeon, features larger works of art. Most art found in The Castle has been donated or long-term loaned by patrons.

With such a title to bear, The Castle has inserted itself into the wider culture in several ways: as the inspiration for the 90’s SNL skit “Goth Talk”, the setting of a very ridiculous B-movie , and the home of the long-running internet radio show Communion After Dark (available on streaming platforms). It is the regular host of many major nightclub parties and events such as The Vampire Ball, The Taboo Masquerade and The Hallucination Before Christmas. It has been featured in countless travel shows at home and internationally.

If These Walls Could Talk
The true history of any place like this is less about the brick and mortar, but the people who have come through the doors over the years (and decades). Some of these eccentric faces have haunted The Castle so frequently that they become part of the characterization of the place itself. There’s “Peter Pan”, the pixie-dressed fellow who is never seen out of a leotard. “Phi-Phi”, the seven foot tall bob-haired harlequin doll (so sweet, a dear friend) who I have never EVER known to be absent from a dance night. “Lilith”, the devil-horned temptress who is often to be found being flogged against a St Andrew’s Cross (much to the delight, confusion and damnation of the menfolk). “Leonardo”, the handsome Satanic wizard, usually seen swaying to the heavy beats in a druggèd trance, casting who-knows-what spell over the crowd (Hey he sounds familiar!) Celebrities and important figures are also known to visit including Cedric the Entertainer and even Peter H. Gilmore, High Priest of the Church of Satan (I said this place attracts all types!). Yet no face was as well known as the One whose status rose to that of legend: The Senator.

The Senator (Michael Ricardi) reached Legend Status because of his unique appearance. After years of hearing about this man, I finally first spotted him by complete chance. As I turned around, there his fully erect penis was, staring me right in the face, followed by the rest of him. He was usually seen wearing lace negligees and other delicate boudoir elements, or sometimes he’d just be totally naked. Then, that first night, like a magic act, I turned around and he had disappeared without a trace. Sadly it seems The Senator has departed, though many younger lads have stepped forward and pulled their cocks out for the crowd, ready to claim the throne for themselves.

The Senator, circa 2017. It wasn’t until I wrote this article that I saw myself in this photo dressed as Papa Emeritus II, staring wide eyed at The Senator’s goods. (c) DrunkCameraGuy

“It’s pretty much about life, even though it looks like it’s about death. You should be able to look the way you want to look and live your life the way you want to live it. As long as you’re harming nobody else, you should be able to be the person you’re meant to be.” – Angel Crane (from a news interview in the 90’s). While its outward beauty has blessed the city for nearly 100 years, the true blessing of this place today is what a haven it has become for people like me. When the sun goes down, the night brings to The Castle a world of endless possibilities. Here, everyone is free to be themselves (and whatever form of themselves that may express). Here, everyone can become a beautiful creature of the night, no matter who they are in the day. 

Illustration by Rebekah Lazaridis

7 thoughts on “The Castle: A Living History”

  1. I have so many of my youthful memories tied to this establishment. It truly is a gem. As are you my dear, loved this article. ❤️

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  2. Very nice article 🎉🎊❤️🥰. Thank you Castle family for the memories! Theo Wujcik the worlds acclaimed artist and Castle regular also deserves a mention. All the elegant paintings in the dungeon and upstairs are his works. Dancing at the castles aside a few of his best works is an honor and a privilege 🍾🍾❤️🎉🎊 for years I never knew the scale of his genius, only that he liked his “rusty nail” and a nice twirl on the dance floor. And the staff the legendary staff! Awwww so much to love here!

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    1. Yes the staff are what make it all come together. I wanted to write more about the long time staff, the coveted bartender positions, and also about the Covid relief fund. It is hard to summarize 100 years into one article though.

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    1. He’s very much still alive! He has been battling and beating cancer during the pandemic and has opted to stay home during it all. I keep in touch with him as best I can. He’s in great spirits and seems to be pretty happy.

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  3. I entered the Castle out of Curiosity because I happened to be walking past it the first Saturday it opened. I had owned a bar myself in New York immediately fell in love with the Gothic Decor and great music and I still am in love with this Alternative Establishment. I have turned down opportunities to move because I didn’t want to not by near the Castle.
    I hope it’s here forever or at least until I die…

    Like

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