Freedom Tower nearly ready for new occupants
By Paola Iuspa
Miami's landmark Freedom Tower is within months of reopening its doors to new occupants.
After 10 months of hammering, drilling, reinforcing concrete columns and beams, demolishing walls and installing electrical wiring, the historic building is nearing a new start, said Felix Jorge Cordoves, project manager.
In four months, he said, the Cuban American National Foundation and the Freedom Tower Foundation will start moving offices to the tower on Biscayne Boulevard, across from the Port of Miami.
An overall $20 million restoration that will include the addition of a museum, research area and library will be complete by May 2002, Mr. Cordoves said.
Of the eight, 1,600-square-foot floors remaining earmarked for office space, one will be different, Mr. Cordoves said.
"Things that belonged to Mr. Jorge Mas Canosa will decorate its walls," he said. "His son told me he wanted people to breathe his father's presence."
Mr. Cordoves said it was the 11th floor with a view that gives the feeling of hovering over the boulevard that made the late Mr. Mas Canosa, a Cuban businessman, fall in love with the tower.
Forty years earlier, the tower had served as a shelter for refugees arriving from Cuba.
When the Mas family bought the Mediterranean-style, 17-story building for $4.2 million in honor of Mr. Mas Canosa, who died in November 1997, Mr. Cordoves said, the family made a pledge to restore the 72-year-old tower and convert it into a museum dedicated to the experience of Cuban immigrants to Miami.
"At the beginning, it represented a big challenge," said Jorge Mas Santos, Mr. Mas Canosa's son and chairman of the Cuban American National Foundation. "But it was our dream and we believed in it. When there is a dream and enough funding, it always comes true."
The tower, built in 1925 to house the Miami Daily News until 1957, passed into the hands of the US government from 1962-74 and then fell into disrepair.
In 1987, a Saudi company bought the tower and spent $14 million on a partial restoration that included a restaurant and nightclub on the second level, said Joe Garcia, executive director of the Cuban American National Foundation.
"That is a graffiti left from those day," he said, as he pointed to a wall exposing dry pipes.
A gallery for art exhibits, a storage for historic documents and an auditorium will fill that floor, he said, while a third floor will house a library and a computerized research center.
"In the future," Mr. Garcia said, "the Cuban Council could use some of this space when democracy comes to Cuba."
It was on a wall on the second level where Mr. Cordoves said he was able to find the original color the building sported when it was built a yellow-peach recently applied to the exterior.
As he continued leading a tour Tuesday trying not to step on small piles of rubbish from the ongoing construction, he started to talk about some of the work already completed.
"Almost 80% of the concrete columns had to be redone," he said. "We only kept the skeleton made of iron. The ceiling of each floor had to be reinforced with layers of carbon fiber.
"It's pretty new in the market," Mr. Cordoves said. "They use it at NASA."
Within days, he said, the upper floors would be getting new windows custom-made to preserve the original model.
Because the Freedom Tower has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979, all remodeling has to be done perpetuating its past.
Mr. Cordoves said the lobby, to be ready in May, also demanded a lot of meticulous work restoring cast cement details and the coffered ceiling while trying to bring back the original materials and colors.
Mr. Mas Santos said the remodeling work has so far cost around $4 million, money that had come from the Mas family and Mas Foundation.
Mr. Cordoves, who said he spends long days at the tower directing the project, said money is not an issue.
"Mr. Mas bought this building not as an investment, hoping to make any profits," he said. "He bought it as a present to the city that open its doors and gave support to Cubans in despair."