Our bald heads protected in hard hats, Tampa architect Sol Fleischman gives me a personal tour of Tampa's old Fort Homer Hesterly Armory, the Deco inspired building on Howard just north of Kennedy. After years of sitting empty, crumbling and lifeless, Sol has led an army of architects, engineers, consultants, designers, and donors into transforming the place into the new Jewish Community Center.
It's a fitting place for us to meet; these walls shared with Sol countless hours of joy growing up. You see, before Curtis Hixon Hall, before the Tampa Convention Center or Ray Jay Stadium, the only place to watch Elvis swivel, see Kennedy two days before Dallas, sit ringside for the Harlem Globetrotters, and take the cutest girl at Plant High to see the New Christie Minstrels, was The Armory. It's a singular honor to watch Sol pass through the building he's helped give new life.
It'll be a public club similar to the "Y", but the spaces and finishes are more like a country club: A 100,000 sq. ft. refreshed and re-configured temple to community and relaxation; already boasting a membership roster of more than 2400.
As its chief architect, and a known perfectionist, every tile, light fixture, locker, the powder-white concrete stairs, the steel windows, the colors and carpets, all needed Sol's approval. But, not for his sake... for the sake of "doing it right".
In the last 80 years America's been treated to the whims of STAR-chitects: Names like Gropius, Mies, The Bauhaus, the Dutch de Stihl; people, places, and ateliers TELLING the clients what they wanted, and, doggonit, they would like it. It was the era of glass boxes scraping the clouds, buildings bereft of decoration, cold cubes molded from plaster and steel, "honest" materials, robbing the soul, but gratifying the architect.
Enter Sol Fleischman. A wise man whose philosophy is: "It's all about the client, it's important to make the client happy, providing them what they want in the best possible way with the best possible proportions, details, and materials."
So, whether it's a MedRev Bayshore villa, a classically proportioned post-modern in a jungle grove, a streamlined Prairie-style glass and stone, lakefront stunner in Carrollwood, or the thoughtful Craftsman interpretation of the Seminole Heights library, Sol relishes the challenge.
Sure, he has is own ideas, and often works with clients to help them with creative solutions; but, always, the client is boss. You may not like their choices, but have to appreciate how Sol has taken their vision and given it proportion, integrity, dignity.
One of my favorites of his is that house I mentioned in Carrollwood; spreading its glazed wings out along the lake, it is a soulful, sophisticated piece of sculpture for living; inviting, rather than aloof. Sol agrees, it makes his heart beat a little faster. But, don't ask him his favorite project: "That's like asking someone to choose their favorite child".
Sol and his brother grew up with enormous privilege; not because they were rich, but because their dad was THE Sol "Salty Sol" Fleischman. Think of your favorite news anchors, combine them all together, then make them the ONLY person on local t.v. and radio. That was Sol's dad. He was THE voice and face of Tampa Bay media; opening up worlds and supplying opportunities the brothers would never have had; Sol acknowledging it indeed helped open doors as he returned from Architecture school at UF.
So, what's this with the mensch in a bowtie title? Well, Sol is known for his natty appearance, almost always accompanied by a bowtie. Bearded, bald, and bowtied, you might mistake him for the quiet, shy, professorial type. Nope. He IS quiet, but he's all MENSCH (Yiddish for 'one with character and dignity', a "real man"). And, through the force of integrity. ability, creativity, and a steel will neatly tucked into a velvet glove, the mensch in a bowtie has contributed to the beauty of our lives with a serene steady, beguiling force.
OH WHAT A LIFE