For decades, West Palm Beach architect Rick Gonzalez, a Cuban-American, has made his living restoring historic properties and finding new uses for them.
His signature project is Mar-a-Lago, the former Marjorie Merriweather Post estate on Palm Beach, now a private club and part-time home of Gonzalez’s most famous client, President-elect Donald J. Trump.
Now the United States and Cuba are at a crossroads just days after the passing of Fidel Castro and months from the beginning of the Trump administration.
And in the middle are people like Rick Gonzalez. Except that Gonzalez, with his personal ties to the island and his professional ties to the billionaire president-elect, has a unique perspective into Cuba, Trump and how to bridge both in a region still trying to figure each out.
Today’s Vision, 15 Years Ago
Travel to Cuba was out of the question until a few months ago, when President Barack Obama allowed U.S. travel to the island nation. So when Gonzalez finally went there in October, he became acquainted with the buildings he had loved from afar.
Many were as beautiful as he had imagined.
“The Teatro Nacional (the National Theater). Oh my gosh, that building at night was exquisite,” Gonzalez said. “I wanted to have a piece of it and eat it, like the best wedding cake you might have tried.”
For a long time, this Cuban son had been thinking about the need to relax the strict U.S. embargo against Cuba, 90 miles south of Florida.
In 2001, Gonzalez penned an editorial for ThePalm Beach Post, urging Americans, including Cuban-Americans, to move away from their hard-line stance and embrace a closer relationship with Cuba, even though it remained a communist country.
“It is time to find and listen to a ‘third voice for Cuba,’ ” he wrote.
That third voice is even more relevant today. On Nov. 25, Fidel Castro died. Earlier that month, Trump was elected president.
And since Castro’s death, Trump has taken a hard stance against the newly opened ties with Cuba.
“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal,” Trump wrote in a Nov. 28 tweet.
From personal experience, Gonzalez said he’s confident Trump won’t undo Obama’s work.
“When he first interviewed me and my dad to work for him in 1995, he said, ‘Oh, you guys are Cubans!’ ” Gonzalez recalled. “And we talked about Cuban for 30 minutes before we talked about the project. … He was very curious about Cuba and the opportunities.”
But he said he thinks Trump is interested in Cuba for reasons not limited to business.
Trump, who just transformed the historic Old Post Office in Washington, D.C., into the Trump International Hotel, “is a huge historic preservationist,” Gonzalez said.
How much does Trump like historic preservation?
“A ton!” said Gonzalez, who has done work at Mar-a-Lago for 21 years.
History Comes to Life
Gonzalez and his parents left Cuba when Gonzalez was 3 months old.
He remembered being curious as a child about the country of his birth. “I’ve been reading about this place since I was a kid, looking at books on architecture and buildings,” he said.
After living in and traveling throughout Central and South America, Gonzalez settled in West Palm Beach. He and his father, Ricardo, founded REG Architects in 1988.
Gonzalez and his team now are the go-to architects in the area for properties that need historic preservation and adaptive reuse. Gonzalez said the goal is to keep the integrity of the original design.
Projects include the 1916 Palm Beach County courthouse, which in 2008 was restored and turned into the Richard and Pat Johnson Palm Beach County History Museum in West Palm Beach.
Gonzalez also is known for his work at CityPlace, where he turned the 1920s First United Methodist Church into the Harriet Himmel Theatre.
Gonzalez’s firm at 300 Clematis St. is in a 1924 bank building.
Gonzalez does new projects, too, including the facade renovation on the Havana Restaurant, as well as the proposed redo of the old Carefree Theatre, both in West Palm Beach.
Of course, the real Havana, so tantalizingly close, became a dream fulfilled when Gonzalez was able to travel there with his daughter, Isabella.
The trip was organized by the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, of which Gonzalez is a past president.
So many grand buildings greeted Gonzalez in Havana. They include the National CapitolBuilding, now being restored; the renovated Teatro Marti; and the Spanish Embassy building.
“Imagine St. Augustine, but 100 times bigger, with beautifully restored buildings from 200, 300 and even 400 years ago,” he said.
In Havana, Gonzalez said he did not expect to see such a stark contrast between buildings that have been restored and those that have not seen a whit of maintenance in more than 50 years.
Those lucky restored buildings are a collaboration between foreign investors and the Cuban government. Many have been re-purposed into hotels, and their loggias, columns and arcades restored to their original beauty.
At the same time, Gonzalez was dismayed to see hundreds of decaying structures, their crumbling facades still holding a whisper of their faded beauty.
Gonzalez, the brother of a Los Angeles film producer, summed it up as if he were pitching a film.
“I call it, “Mad Max Meets Coco Chanel,’ ” Gonzalez said. It’s as if a grimy, apocalyptic world contained splashes of elegance from a French fashion designer, he said.
“That’s what Havana reminds me of now,” Gonzalez said. “You see these glorious buildings, and then you see the darkness, the emptiness of so many more buildings. It’s a contrast of places. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
During the early 20th century, U.S. and Cuban architects collaborated on many important buildings, including the train station and the port building, Gonzalez said.
These buildings were smartly designed with ventilation in mind. Many feature tall windows and arcades to allow breezes to flow through. Streets are shady and filled with trees.
“One of the things we’re pushing so hard these days is a a concept called complete streets, which are made not just for cars but for pedestrians and bicyclists. And in Cuba, they nailed it, hundreds of years ago,” he said.
Take Havana’s Paseo del Prado, a road that goes straight to the water and is lined with a double row of shady trees and a walkable plaza down the middle.
“That could be Quadrille Boulevard,” he said. “But instead today Quadrille is a four-lane divided highway. That would be an easy fix.”
Foreign investment or encroachment?
Soon after the Cuban revolution in 1959, the U.S. imposed a strict economic embargo. But other countries continued to do business with Cuba.
When the Cuban government began permitting international hotel investment in the 1990s, companies from Spain, France and Canada built new hotels in Havana, many from old historic properties.
“Our hotel was a Spanish hotel, and I found it amusing that the Spaniards are back in Havana, like they were 500 years ago,” Gonzalez said.
They’re not the only ones.
The French have a huge hotel under construction on Paseo Del Prado, close to the water, Gonzalez said. The site features the only construction crane Gonzalez saw in Havana.
U.S. hoteliers are not permitted to invest in Cuba, a fact that galls Gonzalez. “We’re on the damn sidelines because our government and the Cuban Americans of the old guard are hung up on an embargo that has failed,” he said.
Gonzalez said people in Cuba are eager for change.
Even his aunt and cousin, both retired and both longtime Communists, have the entrepreneurial bug. “They’re thinking of renting one of the rooms in their flat on Airbnb,” he said.
Dealings with Trump
Gonzalez said Cubans are born business people. He’s one of them. And he’s mindful that Trump has helped boost his career as a preservationist and an all-around architect.
About 20 years ago, Gonzalez started doing work on Mar-a-Lago, which Trump purchased in 1985 for $7 million and transformed into a private club.
Since 1995, REG has been the master planner and architect for the historic property. In 2012, Mar-a-Lago was voted the No.1 historic building in the state by the Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects. Through the years, Gonzalez has worked on the property’s spa, salon, tennis center, beach club, guest villas and ballroom.
Gonzalez recalled being at Mar-a-Lago in 1998, waiting to talk to Trump about yet another improvement for the site.
In the next room, Gonzalez overheard Trump talking to an architect about the proposed ballroom of the Trump International Golf Club, near the Palm Beach International Airport in West Palm Beach.
“I remember him screaming, ‘That’s not what I wanted you to design!’ ” Gonzalez said. “This architect from Boca had designed a miniature Mar-a-Lago for the golf clubhouse, so Trump fired him on the spot. And I’m hearing this and I’m thinking, ‘I’m next. He’s going to be taking it out on me.’ “
Sure enough, “Trump screams, ‘Rick! Get in here!’ ” Gonzalez recalled. “And Trump is with all his minions, sitting in the living room.”
Trump looked to him and asked: “Have you ever designed a golf clubhouse?”
“And I said, ‘No, Mr. Trump, but I would love to.’
“And then he said, ‘Great. You’re starting on the job tomorrow.’ “
Since then, Gonzalez said, he’s designed more than a dozen clubhouses, including his latest project, the city of Palm Beach Gardens golf clubhouse.
Gonzalez also became skilled at ballroom design. He’s done several for Trump. They include the new ballroom and guest suites at the Trump National Club in Jupiter (formerly the Ritz Carlton club); the ballroom at Mar-a-Lago and the ballroom at Trump International Golf Links in Scotland.
Gonzalez said he’s worked with lots of millionaires and billionaires through the years, but not one of them has Trump’s eye for detail and design.
“He’s very much on top of things,” Gonzalez said. “And he makes decisions quickly.”
Not surprisingly, Gonzalez has put a word in with his contacts at Trump. He said he’s willing to be of service in case anybody wants his input on Cuba, its historic properties or anything else that might need to be done to forge future relations with his birth country.
At the age of 55, with his four children nearly grown and his architecture firm established, Gonzalez feels the tug of his homeland.
“I’m known for historic preservation. I’ve been doing it for half my life, since I was 27,” Gonzalez said.
Helping Cuba in whatever way he can has been on his mind for months now. He’s even done the math, which he admits is daunting.
” I think I would need, if I had a shot at Havana, five lifetimes and $100 billion to fix up that place. That’s how much work needs to be done.”
He’d like to give it a start.
Alexandra Clough writes about the economy, real estate and the law.