$25 million for Freedom Tower to display Cuban history better

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Written by Lauren Lamb on February 1, 2022

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Miami Dade College’s Freedom Tower, Miami’s 96-year-old bayfront landmark that is ticketed by the governor and legislature for $25 million in the coming year, would use the funds “mainly for infrastructure and restoration repairs,” the college’s president says.

“This includes structural repairs, making the building more accessible to persons with disabilities, installing museum-quality climate control and security systems, and reimagining the exhibits displaying Cuban American history,” President Madeline Pumariega told Miami Today. “We want this community treasure to be open and accessible for future generations.”

After Gov. Ron DeSantis visited the tower and pledged the $25 million on Nov. 15, he told the News Service of Florida that “It does need some major repairs, and some needs are needed to ensure that it’ll continue to stand here as a symbol of freedom and opportunity for decades to come.”

Afterwards, Rep. Bryan Avila of Miami Springs produced legislation for $25 million for restorations on the national historic landmark at 600 Biscayne Blvd. on the college’s Wolfson Campus. The request said the funds would be used to correct safety issues, improve water and sewer infrastructure, and make sure it aligns with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“We are extremely grateful and humbled to receive this generous support from Governor DeSantis to preserve the history and legacy of our beloved Freedom Tower,” said President Pumariega.

The slender 17-story tower didn’t become the Freedom Tower until it was 32 years old. It began life as home to the Miami Daily News in 1925.

Newspaper owner and failed 1920 presidential candidate James Middleton Cox, a former Ohio governor, commissioned the tower designed by New York architectural firm Schultze and Weaver. The Tower is modeled after the Giralda bell tower of the cathedral of Seville in Spain, according to the Museum of Art and Design Miami Dade College website.

The Miami News moved out in 1957 and the tower sat unused until it was needed for 40,000 Cuban refugees in the 1960s. “It was like the Ellis Island for Cuban refugees,” said Ms. Pumariega.

Pan American World Airways flew two daily flights five days a week from Varadero Airport, moving Cubans from Havana to Miami. The “freedom flights” from 1965 to 1969 delivered 175,000 Cubans to safety.

Until 1974, the Freedom Tower was the Cuban Assistance Center for refugees fleeing Fidel Castro. The refugees referred to the tower as, “El Refugio,” according to the National Park Service.

“Refugees like my parents from Cuba were connected to Catholic charities there,” Ms. Pumariega said. The Freedom Tower helped refugees find connections and family living in the US. It helped Ms. Pumariega’s parents find relatives and sent them to Texas and then New York to be reunited with family.

The Cuban Assistance Center helped refugees in providing housing, education, health care and finances, according to the National Park Service. The building was named a National Historical Landmark in October 2008.

“We have to preserve the history of the Cuban exiles for our rich diversity and culture,” Ms. Pumariega said. “For Miami, it’s important to always be able to look back at history and that it was a beacon of hope for so many dreaming of freedom.”

In 1974 the program ended, and for decades the tower stood empty amidst partial restoration efforts. Developer Pedro Martin, co-founder of Terra Group, purchased the tower in 2005 and later donated it to the college.

The first floor now holds exhibits of Cuban refugee history. “We’ve captured the history of the Freedom Tower with exhibits of urban legacy,” Ms. Pumariega said.

Another exhibit is the Kislak Center, displaying artifacts donated in 2018 by businessman and history enthusiast Jay I. Kislak’s collection. It includes pre-Columbian objects, rare books, manuscripts and maps.

The tower is also home to the college’s Museum of Art and Design and the Cuban Legacy Gallery, and is headquarters to the Miami Film Festival and Miami Book Fair.

“We captured the history of the Freedom Tower with our exhibits,” said Ms. Pumariega. “It gave not just Cubans, but also Venezuelans and Nicaraguans, the opportunity to live out the US dream.”

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