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Getting Tampa in shape

From tiny bus shelters to million-dollar mansions, Sol Fleischman Jr. leaves his mark on the city.

By ELIZABETH BETTENDORF
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 29, 2002


HYDE PARK -- He's designed some of the snazziest mansions in town, including Don Wallace's $8-million, paradise-yellow, Mediterranean revival on Bayshore Boulevard.

His architectural pedigree includes homes in Avila and on Longboat Key.

But he also does bus stops.

Meet Tampa architect Sol Fleischman, Jr., patriarch of FleischmanGarcia.

"We like it all, from traditional to ultra-contemporary to everything in-between," he says.

Like his designs, he is a man of contrasts.

He wears monograms on his starched button-down shirts, but his shoes are tan suede oxfords, the casual sort preferred by professors.

He is a consummate southern gentleman, laid-back with a soft, central Florida drawl, forever fingering coins in his pocket.

He works as if life is a race from start to finish, fueled by 5 to 6 hours sleep a night, yet he spends the extra seconds required to fashion a bow tie.

He owns 250 of them.

Clip-ons?

"Never," he says, rolling his eyes.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of his Hyde Park firm, FleischmanGarcia.

Over the years, the business has drawn dozens of drop-dead gorgeous homes, many for the area's wealthiest residents. FleischmanGarcia has also designed buildings for government, churches, synagogues, health care and social service organizations -- about 1,000 projects in all.

Among them: the YMCA building in Tampa Heights, the Colonnade Restaurant on Bayshore Boulevard and the eight-story, 120,000 square-foot, Tampa Medical Tower near St. Joseph's Hospital.

These days, the mechanical details are often handled by staff. But Fleischman refines the concepts and provides the final critique.

"The buildings you see are a result of collaboration, no one person is responsible," he says. "I try to give projects their general direction."

The firm, which opened a satellite office in Safety Harbor in 1994, now employs 26 people, from secretaries to architects. Most work in a large, warmly lit office on the third floor of a building Fleischman designed in the late 1980s.

Tucked into a tree-canopied lot off Hyde Park Boulevard, the brick structure is reminiscent of the historic bungalows nearby.

But when Fleischman and his late partner, Eduardo Garcia, hung out a shingle in 1971, their image was decidedly less upscale.

Fleischman whips out a snapshot of their first office, a $50-a-month, trapezoid-shaped loft with a magenta front door on Watrous Avenue.

The address was still Hyde Park, but in those days the neighborhood was seedy, not swingy. Fresh out of architecture school at the University of Florida, Fleischman was hungry for projects. His wife, Sandra, worked as bookkeeper.

Their first commission, $250, came from designing a decorative front grille for the old Tampa Airport Motel.

Now his smallest current project is a $200,000 guest house. He might ordinarily turn away such work, but the guest house adjoins a historic home in South Tampa.

His largest? A $12-million, five-story, 120,000-square-foot office building for Tropical Sportswear Intl., inspired by Ernest Hemingway's Key West home.

For inspiration, he looks to Addison Mizner, the king of Mediterranean-revival architecture, who designed many of Palm Beach's most opulent buildings in the 1920s. He also loves Frank Lloyd Wright, Robert A.M. Stern for "his wonderful historicism," and Le Corbusier: "You'll see his round columns show up in my work."

An expert in historic preservation, his favorite architectural periods include Art Nouveau and Art Deco, though he grew up in what he calls a "regular" house off Kennedy Boulevard.

Life inside was far from ordinary.

Celebrities, including sports goddess Babe Zaharias, were always dropping by to see Fleischman's father, the late "Salty Sol" Fleischman, a man some still call "the dean of Florida sportscasters."

The elder Sol's 50-year career began at Tampa's WDAE radio in 1928. He hosted a nightly sports and fishing show on Channel 13 and later wrote a newspaper fishing column.

Young Sol's abilities showed up early, but not in journalism.

He still keeps a first-grade report card from Gorrie Elementary.

He could draw better than anyone in school and was extremely good in math, it said.

"Sol should be an architect," the teacher noted.

All along, Fleischman was profoundly influenced by his father, shaped by his work ethic, social skills and civic-minded ways.

"He was a perfectionist. Anything he did had to be perfect."

The stand-out art and math student was an equally adept tennis player, who later became captain of the Plant High golf team and an All-City and All-County golfer.

At 56, he still strives for fitness, playing tennis every Saturday and golfing on Sundays.

Meanwhile, he feeds his chocolate habit with a bottomless bowl of peanut M&Ms.

"I work hard and play hard," he says.

A busy calendar keeps him on the run until 8:30 p.m. or so.

Once home, he typically eats a salad and French bread prepared by Sandra, whom he lovingly calls "the world's best salad maker."

He often reads architectural journals until well past midnight.

His work and self-esteem are tightly entwined.

"It's very hard for me to divorce myself from my work. People identify me with it. I'm mindful of that: pleasing the public, pleasing the client, doing the right thing."

Take the Wallace mansion on Bayshore.

As it took shape, Fleischman recalls, people groused that it was too big, too close to Bayshore, too yellow.

"When it was finished, they came up and said they loved it," he says.

When controversy stung a smaller project -- the Centro Ybor Garage -- Fleischman again took it in stride. He had been faithful to the historic district's commercial brick and steel architecture -- even down to the black exterior stairwells that resemble old fire escapes. But the building's proposed roof line, cloud shaped, annoyed critics.

Fleischman changed it to mirror the rooflines of Ybor's commercial district.

"Most architects suffer from not knowing how to listen, how to communicate well," he says. "Sometimes people say that I don't talk enough or that I'm too quiet. But it's really that I'm listening."

Florida houses, he says, demand an architectural style all their own: deep overhangs, porches, high ceilings. They should be well-insulated, with ceiling fans, and should invite in the outdoors. Landscaping should create shade and shadow.

"I use water wherever I can for cooling effects and the wonderful sounds it makes."

He points out the fountain in the mossy courtyard of his own house off Bayshore Boulevard, where he and Sandra have lived since the 1970s.

"I was the architect, general contractor, carpenter's assistant, electrician's assistant, and painter," he recalls.

"We couldn't afford to hire anyone."

The home is filled with the things that Fleischman loves.

Steel-and-leather chairs mingle with quirky antiques, including a light-up movie palace ashtray. Etchings by contemporary artist James Rosenquist hang near two art-fair-variety still-lifes.

Leather-bound albums preserve postcards from Tampa's past. He owns thousands, documenting everything from the old Sulphur Springs to Kennedy Boulevard when it was still a sleepy street called Grand Central.

His own buildings helped shape Tampa as it grew into a big city. He's proud of what he's done and what lies ahead: the Stetson College of Law campus near downtown Tampa and the Palm Avenue parking garage in Ybor City.

On his desk is an artist's rendering of a magnificent house on Sarasota Bay for a doctor who loved the Wallace mansion.

Fleischman hand-colors the sky with a bright blue pencil.

"It's been quite a ride," he says. "I don't know where the years have gone."

Sol Fleischman Jr.

  • AGE: 56
  • RECENT TRAVEL: Architectural pilgrimages to Berlin and Prague.
  • DISTRACTIONS: Two boxers, Flash and Boo.
  • FAVORITE LOCAL BUILDING: Plant Hall at the University of Tampa.
  • LEAST FAVORITE: The "blue-box" Tampa police station.
  • FATHER: "Salty" Sol Fleischman.
  • IF NOT AN ARCHITECT: He would be an artist.
  • NEXT ON HIS PLATE: Stetson College of Law campus near downtown Tampa
  • ON TYING BOW TIES: "Easy, except for the little move you have to make right in the middle."

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