Forgetting Freedom

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

The Freedom Tower, Miami's 75-year-old architectural landmark, is still beautiful. Its sixteen stucco stories, inspired by the Giralda bell tower in Seville, Spain, rise in decrepit elegance over Biscayne Bay. In its time the building, which sits on prime Biscayne Boulevard real estate near the new American Airlines Arena and the future Performing Arts Center, served as headquarters for the now-defunct Miami News, as an immigration processing center for Cubans fleeing the regime of Fidel Castro, and as a campground for homeless people. But it has been abandoned for a decade. Its earth-hued walls are marred by graffiti, crumbling stonework, and gaping squares of sky where windows should be. Inside crackheads and looters have stripped away everything from marble tiles to brass elevator doors to copper electrical wiring.

If the Freedom Tower's windows remain open much longer, architects say, human and natural depredations will irrevocably damage its infrastructure. And that will be the end of a Miami treasure -- a structure historian Arva Moore Parks once described as "the only building I can think of that the whole town would throw its body in front of to save."

Indeed platoons of prominent architects and historic preservationists are poised to do whatever it takes to restore the Freedom Tower to its former splendor. But they're powerless to even board up the windows. That's because the tower is private property, and its owners, Miami's prominent Mas family, have so far been unreceptive to rescue attempts.

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

"You can see it deteriorating daily," fumes Nancy Liebman, a Miami Beach city commissioner who is active in historic-preservation causes. "Why is [the Mas family] letting it get to the point where it will be condemned? This building has the richest history in Florida, from when it was called the [Miami] News building to the more recent past, when it became a subtropical version of Ellis Island for Cubans entering the country in the Sixties; that's when it was named the Freedom Tower. For it to be left hanging in the breeze, being demolished by neglect, is a travesty. It's an insult to all the freedom fighters and all the people who came here in the Sixties fleeing Fidel Castro."

Liebman and others concerned about the structure clearly restrain themselves when speaking of its travails. In 1997 the Mas family paid $4.1 million for the building, then rejected millions of dollars set aside by the State of Florida for a restoration project. Instead the family announced plans to use its own considerable resources for renovation. (MasTec, the family business, recently reported annual revenue of one billion dollars, and is listed as the nation's top Hispanic-owned company by Hispanic Businessmagazine). Jorge Mas Canosa, who died two months after the purchase, and his eldest son, Jorge Mas Santos, spoke of their dream of establishing a Cuban-exile museum at the tower and relocating the headquarters of Mas Canosa's politically powerful Cuban American National Foundation there. "When we are just a period in history and there is no Cuban exile, we want people to remember our suffering," Mas Santos told the Miami Herald.

Soon after the sale the Mas family removed all the windows that remained on the upper levels. More than two years later, virtually the only change in the area has been to rename a stretch of Biscayne Boulevard in front of the tower Jorge Mas Canosa Boulevard. The name change, approved by the state legislature this past spring, became official in August.

In recent weeks the Mas family has considered bids from architects to restore the tower, some within the preservation community say. Several calls to the MasTec offices seeking comment were not returned.

The flagrant neglect is outraging many South Floridians. In fact the board of the 26-year-old Dade Heritage Trust is compiling its first-ever list of the county's "most endangered historic sites," and the Freedom Tower is expected to be at the top of it. And a campaign has begun to lobby the National Trust for Historic Preservation to place the tower on its highly publicized list of America's Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places. "The entire preservation community of South Florida is alarmed at the condition of this precious building," Liebman wrote on November 8 to U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Miami). "We cannot allow the building to deteriorate to the point that it will be declared an unsafe structure by the county, which could force its demolition. Attempts at communication with the owner, the Mas family, have gone unheeded."

James Cox, former Ohio governor and owner of the Miami News & Metropolis, commissioned the tower in 1925 to house his newspaper, the city's first daily. The paper's staff moved out in 1957, leaving the building vacant until 1962, when the U.S. General Services Administration transformed it into a service center for the hundreds of thousands of refugees pouring into Miami from Cuba. That lasted until 1974, after which the tower changed hands twice. In 1987 a Saudi company bought the building and spent about $14 million renovating the lower half. "It was to die for," recalls Becky Matkov, Dade Heritage Trust's executive director. "We had a grand-opening gala in the beautiful downstairs ballroom. Then the National Trust for Historic Preservation held its national conference at the tower in 1992; we had lobbied for years to have the conference in Miami. Well, within six months the Saudi Arabian owners filed for bankruptcy, and the building was foreclosed on by a Lichtenstein corporation. The tower was closed, and it hasn't reopened since."

"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."

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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