Forgetting Freedom

A rich and powerful family is allowing one of the nation's most precious properties to rot

"This is historic at many different levels, and as a work of architecture alone, it is probably the most important in the city in uniqueness and character," asserts Coral Gables architect Richard Heisenbottle, who supervised the 1988 tower renovation. "It should be this community's most treasured landmark."

From 1994 until 1997 the building was up for sale, but there were no buyers. For about a year security guards patrolled the grounds round the clock. After the guards disappeared, vagrants as well as contractors who were not paid for their work on the 1988 restoration had free access to strip the tower's grand interior. In 1996 the Dade Heritage Trust, having developed a detailed restoration plan, began the monthslong process of applying for funding from the state's Conservation and Recreational Lands program.

The trust proposed converting the Freedom Tower into an educational center that would include a museum commemorating the structure's history. "Certainly no community can be without a sense of place, of its roots and heritage," says Herb Sosa, then-president of the trust. Sosa, the son of Cuban immigrants, says he considers the tower part of his heritage as a native Miamian. "We envisioned an educational center that would tell the full story of the building. We also discussed tours, a welcome center if you will, and we offered ourselves as a nonprofit agency to manage it."

It sits on a street named for its revered owner, but the Freedom Tower has become more symbolic of decay and neglect than of the exile dream of libertad
Steve Satterwhite
It sits on a street named for its revered owner, but the Freedom Tower has become more symbolic of decay and neglect than of the exile dream of libertad

In the spring of 1997, state authorities agreed to fund the Dade Heritage Trust's proposed restoration of the Freedom Tower. By that time, though, the Mas family had moved to acquire the property. The purchase was finalized in September 1997. State appraisers made numerous attempts to contact the family (a preliminary step in the restoration process) but received no response. After several months Matkov says she met with Juan Carlos Mas, one of Mas Canosa's sons, and received assurances the family had plans similar to the trust's. But the Mas clan wasn't interested in state funding.

"He told me they were going to make a Cuban-heritage museum out of it, and headquarters for the foundation," Matkov says. "It was different from what I was hoping for, although that was going to be part of my concept. I hoped it would be more of a community project, but his vision was still admirable. He indicated they didn't have a timeline but definitely had plans to restore it soon."

Just a few weeks ago, students at the University of Miami School of Architecture offered to board up the tower windows, gratis, and perform other maintenance. According to those familiar with the proposal, the Mas family declined the offer. "Everyone at the school [of architecture] is really interested in the future of the building," says student Debbie Tackett. "The students do a lot of volunteer work and most organizations welcome the effort, but it seems like we can't do anything [at the Freedom Tower] because we can't get permission from the owners."

In Miami Beach, owners of vacant buildings are required to seal them against weather and vandalism; the City of Miami, which has jurisdiction over the tower, provides less protection for historic buildings and is not known for strict code enforcement. In effect the tower owners are free to let it rot. "I'd venture to say it's in worse condition than it was in the early Eighties," observes Herb Sosa. "There's not a window left; if there is security onsite, which I'm almost certain there isn't, it's minimal at best. Certainly not adequate. Meanwhile the rain keeps coming in and the building keeps getting vandalized and carpets and murals are being destroyed little by little. Unfortunately the rest of the community isn't benefiting. I'm not questioning the Mas family's intentions. I just want to see some action."

kathy_glasgow@miaminewtimes.com

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