Free At Last

For something that encompasses the word freedom in its name, the stately Freedom Tower has seemingly been in bondage for quite a long time. A bit of its tangled history: Modeled after Seville, Spain's Giralda Tower, it was built in 1925 by Shultze and Weaver (the same firm that designed Coral Gables' Biltmore Hotel, Miami Beach's original Roney Plaza, and downtown Miami's Ingraham Building). It was commissioned by James Cox, owner of the Miami Metropolis and Miami Daily News (later known as the Miami News), whose offices and printing facilities occupied the seventeen-story Mediterranean Revival-style building until 1957.

Empty for five years, the structure was commandeered in 1962 by the U.S. General Services Administration and used for the next twelve years as a resettlement center for Cuban refugees, earning it the moniker Freedom Tower. In the fall of 1979, the National Park Service listed the property on its National Register of Historic Places, suggesting that it be preserved but ultimately offering little protection. By 1987 a Saudi company acquired the building, spending millions of dollars to lavishly restore its lower three floors. Five years later, shortly after the National Trust for Historic Preservation held its annual conference there, the Saudi concern went belly up. A corporation based in Liechtenstein took over and promptly shuttered the building. Floundering, the structure languished on the real estate market from 1994 to 1997. Soon it became a favorite haunt of vagrants, who broke windows allowing rain water to enter and stripped valuable assets such as copper wire, contributing to its decline.

In 1996 Dade Heritage Trust, Miami's oldest preservation group, proposed transforming the Freedom Tower into an educational center with a museum to honor its past. The organization was beat to the punch by the Mas family, as in the Cuban American National Foundation, who purchased it in September of 1997 for $4.1 million. The plans: Establish a Cuban exile museum and relocate CANF offices. Given the edifice's significance as a sort of Statue of Liberty for Cubans, the combination of owner and property was thought to be a winning match. Sadly the building was left to deteriorate for two years, earning it the number one slot on Dade Heritage Trust's "ten most endangered historic sites" list and raising the hackles of local historians and preservationists. Restoration efforts began at last in 1999.

This Saturday evening (fittingly the day before Cuban Independence Day) CANF will conduct an open house of the building, which is still a work in progress, with a splashy bash featuring an inaugural mass (thank God!), exhibits, informational booths, fireworks, live music from an orchestra and from famous Cubans such as Celia Cruz, Jon Secada, and Willy Chirino, and a subsequent concert at Bayside. A properly grand reopening is slated for next year.