History museum negotiating purchase of Freedom Tower
By Samantha Joseph
The Historical Museum of Southern Florida is in talks with the county and the Cuban American National Foundation to buy Miami's landmark Freedom Tower, at 600 Biscayne Blvd.
The tower could sell for about $30 million and provide a new home for the museum by 2006, according to the museum's marketing director, Maria Meilan.
"These are plans," she said. "They're written in pencil, not in ink. But now the opportunity is there, and the timing is right."
Miami-Dade County subsidizes and is landlord for the museum, 101 W. Flagler St. Its interest in the Freedom Tower was apparent in September when county commissioners moved to make the building a beneficiary of a proposed $1.6 billion bond issue.
The Freedom Tower belongs to the Mas Canosa family, who purchased it for $4.1 million in 1997. The group, which heads the Cuban American National Foundation, announced plans in 1999 for a museum to chronicle Cuban immigration.
The tower, formerly the processing center for about 400,000 Cuban refugees, is an important part of that history.
If the history museum buys the tower, plans for an all-Cuban museum likely will not come to fruition.
"As important as it was, South Florida's history is much, much more than the Cuban exodus," Ms. Meilan said. "I think every ethnic group has an important part in that history. I am very hopeful we can all arrive at a happy medium."
The vacant 17-story tower would display artifacts historical museum curators say record 10,000 years of South Florida's history, she said.
"It will be a match made in heaven if we are able to move to the Freedom Tower," Ms. Meilan said. "It is a good combination and a win-win situation."
If successful in its bid, the museum would move into the Biscayne Boulevard site by 2006, Ms. Meilan said.
The move would see the museum leave its home at 101 W. Flagler St., near the main public library in downtown Miami - a spot it has occupied for the past 20 years and outgrown, said Ms. Meilan. It would put to use the 17-story Freedom Tower, which served as a processing center for Cuban refugees in the 1960s and '70s, now vacant at 600 Biscayne Blvd.
The new address would put the county's only historical museum in the heart of what city administrators call the "new Miami" - an area around downtown developers have earmarked for revitalization.
If the Historical Museum moves into the Freedom Tower, it would be part of a countywide effort to spur interest in downtown Miami through recreational and economic ventures.
Major residential developments in the area are expected to add thousands of apartments and condominiums and attract about 7,000 residents in the next five years, according to the Downtown Miami Partnership. The Downtown Development Authority has said 6,075 condos and apartments are under construction in Brickell and Brickell Key, along the Miami River and in the media and entertainment district and the Central Business District.
The Freedom Tower is within walking distance of the $370 million Performing Arts Center of Greater Miami, under construction on Biscayne Boulevard between 13th and 14th streets and set to open by early 2006.
Also nearby is Bicentennial Park, where city planners hope to place museums and recreational attractions.
"It all presents an extremely exciting change for Miami," said Ms. Meilan.
The history museum stands to benefit from a proposal by county commissioners to include the Freedom Tower in a $1.6 billion bond issue to fund and support community projects. Commissioners specified in October that the tower should benefit from the disbursement.
Voters will consider the issue in November.
The building is an integral part of the state's immigrant history and was to South Florida what Ellis Island was to New York. As the processing center for about 400,000 Cuban refugees in the 1960s and '70s, it housed immigration records and was a health-care and relief center for the immigrants. The building was home to the Miami News from its construction in 1925 until the 1950s.
"The Freedom Tower and the Historical Museum are meant to be together," Ms. Meilan said.
Museum administrators intend to maintain the site to display their maritime collection, which includes more than 30 recreational boats and about 370 outboard motors dating from the turn of the century to the 1950s and Cuban and Haitian refugee rafts from the 1980s.
The collection is now at Harrison Warehouse, a storeroom named for John C. Harrison Sr., who donated the wooden boats, outboards and storage space to the museum in 1990.