Stu Blumberg still remembers that first Lego set he tried to build, a red car with pop-up headlights and doors that opened on tiny hinges. It ended up too complicated for this Lego beginner. Blumberg slammed down the half-built car in frustration when he couldn’t get the blocks to fit.
“I just wasn’t used to how the pieces locked together,” Blumberg, 81, recalled of that Ferrari set he bought on a whim three years ago. “When I was making models as a kid, I was always able to glue them.”
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At age 78, Blumberg decided not to let his first Lego set be his last. The retired president of Miami-Dade County’s hotel association went back to the Lego store at the Aventura Mall and bought a larger sports-car kit for an orange Porsche.
This time he got the pieces to stay together. That mini Porsche launched three years of increasingly complicated Lego builds of castles, spaceships and stadiums. Recently, Blumberg took on his most complex Lego project yet.
“If you don’t have the right height on these pillars, all of a sudden it goes on an angle and you’re screwed,” Blumberg said as he hunched over his latest Lego creation, a 6,630-piece model of downtown Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. “It’s all angles.”
Blumberg, who helped lead the fight to build the Arsht Center in the 1990s, ordered the Arsht set from a software consultant in Topeka who designs customized Lego buildings using second-hand blocks. While not an official Lego product, the replica of the César Pelli-designed concert hall would fall at the very top of Lego’s complexity scale. It has more pieces than the Harry Potter Hogwarts Castle set (6,020 pieces) and not too far off from the toy that’s listed as the largest Lego model on the market: the $800 Millennium Falcon (7,541 pieces).
“It’s a great hobby,” Blumberg said, nearing the end of his third year as a Lego builder. “It keeps your mind sharp. And your reflexes sharp.”
For Blumberg, Legos injected a new focus after nearly 10 years of retirement from a job that had him in the center of every major issue facing Miami’s tourism industry.
As president of the Greater Miami and the Beaches Hotel Association, Blumberg was the industry’s primary local lobbyist and regularly found himself in various spats with political leaders in Tallahassee and Miami. He retired in 2009, saying he “couldn’t continue to fight windmills by himself.”
Blumberg was window shopping in Aventura when a Legos display caught his eye. He knew he needed a hobby and thought building a miniature car could be a fun challenge.
“At my age, I don’t exercise,” he said. “I don’t play dominoes. I don’t golf.”
Blumberg got his start in the heyday of Miami Beach hotels, working as a bellhop in the since-demolished Americana Hotel in Bal Harbour in the 1950s. He went on to run hotels as a general manager and befriended Jackie Gleason when the Great One brought his show to Miami Beach.
Photos of him with Gleason share wall space with nearly two dozen of his Lego creations on display in the step-down garage off the kitchen in the North Bay Village house he shares with his wife of 56 years, Marlene.
There’s the 1,000-brick Titanic, a three-story Japanese tower from the Ninjago series, and a nearly two-foot-tall Apollo rocket next to a Lego space shuttle. On another shelf sits London Bridge, and the Batmobile, and the Sydney Opera House, and a pirate ship, and Boston’s Fenway Park.
Giants Stadium is missing — Blumberg gave that one away as a gift. So is the Lego Taj Mahal, a 5,923-piece set that Blumberg assembled and then dropped in a stumble during a move from the dining room to the garage.
Adrienne Arsht, the wealthy retired banker and philanthropist whose $30 million naming gift underpins the real-life Arsht Center’s finances, has seen a photo of Blumberg’s creation. She’s impressed. “It’s a better mock-up than the one César Pelli did 20 years ago,” Arsht said.
The two are friends, and Blumberg said he sent her the photo with an offer to put Arsht’s name on the Lego version, too. “I said, ‘It won’t cost you $30 million, but send a check for whatever amount,’ ” he recalled.
For Arsht, Blumberg’s Lego creation captures his devotion to whatever task has his full attention at the moment. “He just never gives up,” she said.
The Arsht Center is the only Miami structure in Blumberg’s Lego portfolio. Blumberg was on the board that presided over the famously delayed, county-funded venture that took five years to build. He has his name on plaques on both ends of a pedestrian bridge linking the two concert halls over Biscayne Boulevard, an architectural extra that Blumberg demanded be added to an already overflowing construction budget that would top $470 million.
This year, Blumberg assembled that bridge by hand, using dozens of tiny plastic bricks.
“I’ll tell you this,” Blumberg said, “building it was emotional. Watching it being built again. In reality. In real time. Each time, I put something in there, it was like watching the real building be built all over again.”
Blumberg said it took him about five months to build the Lego Arsht, following a computer program on his laptop that broke down the assembly into 1,677 individual instructions. Each step consisted of an animated slide showing where the Lego pieces should be added, using the number of tiny pegs on each brick as an assembly guide.
“If you make a mistake, and I have, you have to take it all down,” Blumberg said. “You go back to that slide, and start again.”
Brett Thiessen, who created the Arsht set for Blumberg, mostly sells Lego stadiums on his Etsy store, Stadium Brick. They cost between $500 and $750, and Blumberg said the Arsht price was in that range. Blumberg had already built the Fenway and Giants kits when he requested a Miami concert hall that would wind up the most complicated building that Thiessen has ever created.
“It’s definitely the most difficult to build,” said Thiessen, who creates the kits and instructions using Lego software. “It’s the largest, and has the most pieces.”
Blumberg recently watched his most ambitious Lego piece leave his home. Professional art movers loaded up the Arsht building for a grander setting — inside the Arsht center itself, where it is displayed in the lobby of the Knight Concert Hall.
Blumberg said he’s toying with asking Thiessen to create a Lego set for Miami-Dade’s civil courthouse, a 1928 tower that once held a trial for Al Capone. First, he’ll probably return to a store-bought Lego set.
“That Harry Potter Hogwash Castle, or whatever they call it,” he said. “I miss it. I’m in withdrawal.”