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Miami Beach builder Robert Turchin looks back — and ahead

If former Miami Beach vice mayor Robert Turchin had been a Miami decision maker during the recent vote that decided the fate of The Miami Herald building, he would probably have voted with the ‘nays’ allowing its demolition.

“There’s nothing special about it,” says the 90-year-old Turchin as he cruises Collins Avenue between 63rd and 48th streets, a strip dense with buildings from the same period as the Herald’s — specimens of post-war Miami Modern (MiMo) architecture that he constructed.

It is no exaggeration to say that Turchin built much of post-war Miami Beach, collaborating with Melvin Grossman, Morris Lapidus and other MiMo period architects. From 1945 to 1985, his firm was the busiest in the building trade. Royal York, Montmartre, Moulin Rouge, King Cole, Charter Club, Four Ambassadors — the list goes on, numbering upward of 100 buildings.

“I grew up when Miami Beach was a small town. It was 1945, and the hotels would close during the summer for renovations because they had no air conditioning. I couldn’t wait for summers, when I would return from school and work on the construction sites,” Turchin says.

In an era when hotel signs sometimes read “No Jews or dogs,” Turchin’s father was a successful builder who hoped his son would be a diplomat. It was not to be. After serving in World War II, for which he recently received a French Legion of Honor medal, he started his first project. Like subsequent ones, it broke the mold.

“The GI Bill made housing affordable for veterans, but it was single-family housing. I wanted to build a four-family unit under the bill,” Turchin says. It was an unprecedented proposal that went from city to state to federal agencies before it was approved. The multi-unit buildings launched the concept of condominiums.

As did other builders, he began to experiment with air conditioning. “Once we were able to air condition them, the hotels stayed open year-round. The beach boomed then,” he says.

Buildings came down to make way for new ones. Turchin’s Morton Towers went up where Carl Fisher’s circa 1920 Flamingo Hotel stood on 15 acres. “The land had become more valuable than the building,” he explains.

Turchin became known as “the builder’s builder” for riding to the top floor of construction sites on the hook of a crane, and walking the beams to inspect the work. His view of the built landscape was daring, pragmatic, and often at odds with those of preservationists like Nancy Liebman, a Miami Beach city commissioner from 1993 to 2001 who served with Turchin on the city’s first historic preservation board.

“A lot of the beautiful mansions on the bay and beach were lost to that kind of development,” laments Liebman. “It was the typical mentality of throw it away and build something new.”

But Turchin was building for the next generation. To him, the Art Deco buildings of his father’s generation — Edgewater Beach, the Sands and the Sea Isle where he honeymooned with his wife — were old school.

“They made no sense. They were all building with a few trees in front. They weren’t called Deco back then. Curlicues on concrete is how we thought of them,” he says.

As the Miami Design Preservation League’s executive director in the early ’80s, Liebman fought to resurrect the Deco constructions. “They were the first generation built to capture the sea breezes, with light and porches. You have to anchor the city with its history and its past through the built environment,” she says.

But zoning had as much to do with how the Deco buildings looked as the architecture did, Turchin says. “When I was starting out, the zoning on the beach was 14 stories maximum, so builders would fill up bigger parcels to the edge of the property line. Land was cheap then, so they could. I kept saying ‘Go up. Go higher.’ You had more options then to put in nice landscaping, underground parking and other amenities,” he says.

While Liebman and others viewed the skyline of the 1960s and 1970s as a “concrete canyon,” the rising structures offered new opportunities for dining and nightlife that held an irresistible attraction for the post-war affluent. Miami Beach garnered a reputation for celebrity hot spots like the Montmartre, with its Les Girls Supper Club and Bardot Bar, one of many Turchin collaborations with Melvin Grossman.

If he demolished some buildings, Turchin has also seen his creations become tear-downs. In 1981 the Montmartre was leveled. On the strip south of 163rd Street, two condominiums replaced the circa 1957 Castaways that housed the famed Wreck Bar under its fanciful roof. A 46-story tower stands where he built the three-story Mozart. Many more of his buildings are in their second or third generation of redevelopment.

Liebman, now president of the MiMo Biscayne Association, works to preserve Biscayne Boulevard as the historic entryway to Miami, so that MiMo buildings like the Turchin-built 1961 King Cole Condominium at 900 Bay Dr. continue to stand. “As a matter of fact, I live in one of Mr. Turchin’s buildings on Belle Isle,” she says. “It’s well-built, has aesthetic appeal, and the amenities are lovely.”

Both the builder and the preservationist love Miami Beach and have given their all to the community. Like the debate over the Herald building, they are two sides of a coin.

“When a building comes down, I feel a little nostalgia, but not for long,” says Turchin. “That’s life. Miami only has so much land. You can stagnate, or you can do it over again.”