Tony Goldman’s golden touch transformed Miami

09/16/2012 12:00 AM

09/16/2012 5:31 PM

The last time I got to talk with Tony Goldman before his untimely death last week, we were not in Miami but in his office in SoHo. That office, on the fifth floor of one of the many historic buildings he’d saved in New York City, was — in a word — astounding.

Filled with art and artifacts, it showcased several of his collections, including period scale models of early American buildings and carved wooden bird decoys that were suspended from the ceiling as if in flight. Most of the art was, in contrast, contemporary.

The whole place (he called it the SoHo Building) was, in fact, an ode to Tony’s love of graffiti and his fervent belief that we should surround ourselves with good art and architecture — and that often, it is there, right before our eyes.

I’d like to think it was that philosophy that propelled him to Miami Beach in 1986, at a time when the Art Deco District was still bedraggled, its prospects clouded by naysayers who didn’t believe in historic preservation, much less that a renovated South Beach might flourish.

There was no room in Tony Goldman’s life for pessimists and naysayers. He quickly brought new life to the Art Deco buildings he’d bought, easily winning over the feisty and indefatigable Deco crusader Barbara Capitman and happily giving a blank canvas to designer Leonard Horowitz, who painted the Park Central Hotel (among others) in the most exquisite colors imaginable — periwinkle, lavender, aqua, among them.

At one of his properties, which is known as The Hotel but will always in my mind be The Tiffany, he even changed the course of preservation law: After Tiffany & Co. invoked its right to trademark, Goldman got Congress to pass legislation protecting the names of historic buildings.

Historic preservation, neighborhood renewal and art were inextricably intertwined for him. They were what transformed SoHo, once derelict and now flourishing, its sidewalks, restaurants, shops, showrooms and galleries brimming. The same could be said for the Art Deco District, and while in neither case could it all have been accomplished by one person, none of it would have happened without the vision, tenacity, courage and spirit Tony Goldman brought to bear.

The singing, soaring colors of the early Art Deco District (before it got too “fashionable” to be painted in the ice-cream pastels that made it famous) were not his invention, but it was his wholehearted support that kept the palette and the painter going.

To Wynwood, where he was again an early investor and ardent supporter, he brought a different aesthetic and a very different and cacophonous rainbow of colors. He built a graffiti garden, brought in not one but two restaurants, became landlord to some eminent tenants (among them, MOCA, the Miami Light Project and Gallery Diet) and, most recently, completed the op-art spectacle that is the Wynwood Building with its vibrant (dare I say vibrating?) black and white walls.

It would be hard to single out a project that would symbolize him, but he brought to them all a rare combination of high spirits and respect for others and an unending appreciation for both creativity and craft. And he was generous and kind, two traits that are undervalued in these times.

My last conversation with him underscored all this. I’d recently become the (commuting) editor of the New York-based Modern Magazine, and its offices are, coincidentally, in Tony’s exuberant SoHo Building at 110 Greene St. I was thrilled to be working there and, since I’d known him so long, asked if I could pay a call. I gave him the current issue of Modern, and he took time to look through it, turning down the corners of pages where there were stories or ads he wanted to return to.

We talked a bit about the building, about SoHo and about his chairmanship of a committee to raise funds to erect a memorial to Capitman, the “mother” of the Art Deco District. And, of course, we talked about his family, of which he was exceedingly proud.

As I left, his new assistant looked at me and said (I paraphrase), isn’t he a fine man? And I said yes (of course). “Aren’t I lucky?” she asked looking around at the space, her eyes stopping at Tony’s office. She was, and we all were — all of us whose lives and neighborhoods were touched by Tony Goldman.

Beth Dunlop is The Miami Herald’s contributing architecture critic.

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