Tony Goldman was a visionary developer and preservationist who saw bright futures for blighted neighborhoods.
His company, Goldman Properties, transformed Miami Beach from a moth-eaten retirement enclave and narcotics war zone into a celebrity playground, and Wynwood from a gritty warehouse district and homeless encampment into a vibrant arts center where monthly gallery walks draw thousands.
He saved many of Miami Beach’s decaying Art Deco gems, and invited artists to use his Wynwood buildings as canvases. He salvaged sketchy areas of New York City and Philadelphia that anchored major urban revitalization.
“Ocean Drive went from being relatively nonexistent to one of the major destinations of the world,” said Craig Robins, a Goldman protegé who redeveloped Miami’s Design District. “Tony was the central person in getting South Beach going.”
In 2010, when Goldman won the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s highest honor, the Louise du Pont Crowninshield Award, trust president Stephanie Meeks said, “At its core, preservation is about recognizing the value of historic buildings and neighborhoods, and restoring life to places that define and enrich our communities. That is what Tony Goldman does, and nobody does it better.”
Four years ago, after a diagnosis of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, Goldman underwent a double lung transplant. Afterward, “his health was an issue, but he never let it get in the way,” said his wife, Janet Ehrlich Goldman. The Vietnam War-era veteran of the U.S. Army died of heart failure in September at 68.
Born to a single mother on Dec. 6, 1943, in Wilmington, Del., he was adopted at birth by Tillie and Charles Goldman of New York, who named him Richard Anthony Goldman and raised him in comfort on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with a brother and a sister.
Goldman’s childhood inspired his passion for saving old buildings, said daughter Jessica Goldman Srebnick, who succeeded her father as Goldman Properties’ CEO.
“He never felt like he had his own roots. Historic preservation is about preserving roots. He didn’t know his own history, so preserving history was very important,” she said.
In 1986, Goldman told The Miami Herald that he considered himself lucky to have grown up in a wealthy family but, even as a teenager, realized he needed to make it on his own.
“If you take your family’s money, you’ll always be a slave to it,” he said.
At 15, he started working at his father’s New Jersey coat factory, where he “got a basic understanding of the working man there,” he said.
He studied drama at Boston’s Emerson College, where he met Janet. They married in 1966, divorced in 1977 and remarried in 1986.
Goldman learned the real-estate business from an uncle in New York and went out on his own in 1968.
“I was a teacher making $200 a week,” Janet Goldman recalled. “Tony was making $175. ... We worked hard, and we built everything together.”
Her husband, who loved to cook and sing, was “very competitive,” had “moxie and drive,” and felt that his only failure had been the failure of his body, she said.
“Even so, he persevered and never complained, never gave into fear, and always did whatever it took to do the right thing,” his wife said. “That is what inspired everybody around him — he handled things with such grace and dignity. He kept saying to me: ‘I want to be remembered as a mensch.’ ”
In the 1980s, he made a real estate move that would make him famous, buying 18 rundown properties in New York’s South of Houston neighborhood — now SoHo, the trendy residential loft district. Goldman saw the historic cast-iron façades through the layers of grime and decay and understood that some day, New Yorkers would pay top dollar to live there.
“He came in when it was a dump,” said Marvin Shanken, a golfing buddy and head of the Manhattan company that publishes Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado magazines. “He revived it with restaurants, and a jazz club and so forth. He brought vitality to an area where people basically were afraid to walk at night.”
Flush with cash, Goldman came to a similar conclusion about Miami Beach during a visit in 1985. He had already invested in Coconut Grove, and began buying one Art Deco property a month for 18 months along Ocean Drive.
“I was looking for an alternative to New York. The buying there is too tough,” Goldman said. “As soon as I turned the corner at Fifth Street and Ocean Drive, that was it. I surrendered.”
Goldman’s biggest challenge came in Miami’s scruffy warehouse district, Wynwood. As prices rose, Goldman and son Joey began buying properties in the neighborhood, which was attracting artists but remained deserted and forbidding at night.
The Goldmans opened the first full-service restaurant there in 2009 — an upscale pizzeria called Joey’s — and unveiled a permanent art installation called “Wynwood Walls,” three sprawling courtyards decorated by some of the country’s top graffiti artists.
“That is Tony’s masterpiece,” said Marlo Courtney, managing director at Goldman Properties. “It’s our graffiti park, open for the world to see.”
Excerpted from The Miami Herald, Sept. 13, 2012.