BARRY SUGERMAN

How fruit man's son became architect

 

My father was a fruit man.

My sister Roberta and I were born in Brooklyn, like our mother and father. Dad's father immigrated from Russia; mom's from Austria.

My parents vacationed in Miami Beach in 1936 and were smitten by this new world. In New York, my father had worked in the Washington market selling fruit. My dad loved to gamble on baseball.

When the Brooklyn Dodgers lost to the New York Giants, my dad lost, too -- heavily.

Before the bookie's thugs could come to collect, my parents packed my sister, Roberta, 3, and me, 2, and all our worldly belongings into the family De Soto for the get-out-of-town-quick trip.

They permanently settled in Miami Beach in 1939. To Dad's credit, the move was the last gamble he ever made. Dad opened a fruit store at Alton Road and Eighth Street. We lived across the street from the store in the Twin Harbor Court apartments in a one-bedroom apartment. My sister and I shared the bedroom; my parents slept on the living room couch.

In those early years, though we were economically challenged, I was never really conscious of that. The only thing that was plentiful were mosquitoes and prickly heat.

In 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. My sister and I were playing outside when we saw the first contingent of soldiers marching up Alton Road. The Army Air Force had arrived. They took over the hotels in Miami Beach to house and train the recruits.

Dad's fruit store was steps from two of those hotels, the Fleetwood and the Floridian. Our store was a meeting point for off-duty soldiers to quench their thirst in those pre-air conditioning days. My earliest memories are of playing with the soldiers in my father's store and watching them do calisthenics on the beach.

I can still see them marching up and down the streets or hiding under our car to escape the heat, their drill sergeant or both. My mother joined the Red Cross as a nurse's aide and as a driver for the motor corps. She drove a bus loaded with wounded soldiers, taking them for rest and recreation to the various tourist attractions.

Although the influx of soldiers improved my father's business, we were still living in a one-bedroom apartment. The only thing lacking was a house. With the war finally over, construction popped up all over Miami Beach. I loved playing in the building sites.

I was 8 when my Uncle Lew, who after serving in Europe was now working in the structural steel business, came to visit. My dad had told him how I loved to build things. Uncle Lew arrived with his suitcase in one hand and what I thought were treasure maps in the other.

He brought me a gift that would change my life forever. They were blueprints of a home that he was helping to build in New York. He opened my eyes to a whole new world and taught me how to trace over the blueprints.

I started my career by tracing over other architects' floor plans, and soon I was changing their layouts to suit my fancy. It is a practice I still do today.

It was also at this time that Dad relocated his business to the farmers market in Miami near 12th Avenue and 20th Street.

My sister and I went to South Beach Elementary, then Ida M. Fisher Junior High and Miami Beach High.

Roberta and I attended Beach High during a ``bubble in time,'' the peaceful years between the Korean and Vietnam wars.

In the 10th grade, my fantasy finally became a reality. We moved to a house in Surfside. My parents lived there about 50 years until they died: my dad in 2000 at age 90, my mom in 2003 at 89.

I loved working with my dad at the farmers market, rubbing elbows with such interesting people. One of my favorites was a man who owned the local gas station, Frank Martin. He was known as ``the mayor of the market'' because he had a lot of political connections.

He knew that I wanted to go to Georgia Tech to study architecture. Frank heard that my high school dean, Carl Lessner, told me that he doubted I could get in. Martin took me to Sen. George Smathers' office, unannounced, to ask the senator to write a letter of recommendation for me to attend Tech. He did so on the spot and I walked out with the letter in hand. The rest is history.

After graduating from Tech and serving my time in the Air Force, I returned to my beloved Miami Beach to start my architectural career.

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