For many people in Miami, the iconic Freedom Tower on Biscayne Boulevard is a symbol of freedom gained in America after it was lost in Cuba. In the 1960s, the Freedom Tower was home to the Cuban Refugee Center, which cemented its special place in the hearts of Cuban exiles and Cuban Americans.
But long before Cubans were exiled from their island nation, the tower was already iconic. Built in 1925, it was the first skyscraper in Miami and home to the city’s first newspaper.
Since then the tower has had its up and downs and served different purposes, but it still maintains its cherished place in the Cuban exile community.
Miami’s first skyscraper still standing tall
Recently, we told you about Cape Florida, at the tip of Key Biscayne. It’s Miami-Dade County’s oldest structure. This week, we stay in Miami for another historic building, the city’s first skyscraper, which later became an icon of liberty.
Ohio Gov. James Cox ran for president as a Democrat in 1920. His running mate was then New York Gov. Franklin Roosevelt. Cox lost to Warren G. Harding. and then bought the Miami Metropolis, the city’s first newspaper. He renamed it The Miami Daily News.
For his paper’s headquarters, he hired famed architects Schultze and Weaver of New York. The 65,000-square-foot structure on Biscayne Boulevard was completed in 1925.
To celebrate its new building and the city’s 29th anniversary, The Miami News published a commemorative 22-section, 504-page edition on July 26, 1925. It weighed 7½ pounds; at the time it was the fattest newspaper in world history.
The 17-story news tower inspired by the 15th century Giralda Tower in Seville, Spain, stood out on the skyline of fledgling Miami, visible to ships six miles at sea. In its opulent lobby, a chandelier encircled a globe, representing the newspaper’s ties to the world through the telegraph. Illustrations on elevator doors showed symbols of newspapers and the pioneer days of printing.
But the News moved out in 1957 and the building stood dormant for five years.
Enter Fidel Castro. After Castro took over Cuba in 1959, thousands fled for Florida. In July 1962, the federal government, facing overwhelming numbers of refugees, leased the four main floors of the empty building for what it called the Cuban Refugee Center. Later, it got a new name: Freedom Tower.
Over the next 12 years, 650,000 refugees passed through its doors. The U.S. Department of the Interior even dubbed the building the “Ellis Island of the South.”
Castro stopped the Cuban airlift in April 1973 and the center shut down again the following year.
It was empty for another 14 years, even as other parts of downtown were rejuvenated in the booming 1980s. Critics dubbed the lonely edifice “The Dowager of the Boulevard.? Rescue schemes came and went.
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