The Miami community can do better with the historical Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. For a city long criticized for its lack of focus on history, the Olympia Theater stands today as a neglected beacon of culture that is known more for the scaffolding that has crippled its once inviting facade. One can easily imagine it being torn down by the City of Miami by accident or out of spite, to remove this reminder of its failure.
Built in 1926, the Olympia Theater was a showcase for silent movies, transforming over decades into a performance space for Elvis Presley, Jimmy Buffet and Wynton Marsalis, and serving as the onetime home of the Miami Film Festival when no one lived in Downtown Miami.
In 1970, Maurice Gusman bought the dilapidated building and spent $5 million on improvements, hiring famed architect Morris Lapidus to bring his magic and he did. For decades, it drew residents of all ages to Downtown Miami before it became a favorite of developers building skyscrapers. Today it sits empty and ignored despite billions of dollars being invested all around it.
As it did in the 1970s, the Gusman family is again coming to the rescue. As trustees of the Maurice Gusman Foundation, his grandchildren are fighting with the City to take control.
The situation is complicated because Maurice Gusman struck an agreement with the Board of Off Street Parking to run it — a detail enshrined in a restrictive covenant to ensure compliance. This arrangement stood unchallenged until 2011 when the Off Street Parking Board relinquished control to city politicians, breaching the agreement. This action drew criticism from Gusman’s grandson, Robert Gusman, who saw this as a betrayal of his grandfather’s intentions. Despite assurances from elected leaders that the late Herman Echevarria, a respected businessman, would oversee the theater’s revival, Echevarria’s untimely death left those promises unfulfilled, and the theater fell into neglect.
The theater’s fate took another twist in 2019 when Bruce Gusman, another of Maurice’s grandsons, discovered a ‘repair or demolish’ notice tacked to the building his grandfather had so lovingly saved. Media reports soon followed that the city intended to transfer ownership to Miami-Dade College. This prompted the Gusmans to hire an attorney Tim Barket, who has been heavily involved in this process over the last 5 years. The city denied the request.
So what happens now? The Gusmans want the Olympia Theater back because the family feels it is the best custodian for this magnificent piece of Miami history. The City of Miami is only spending time sending inspectors to cite it for violations. The theater is no longer in the cultural conversation, known today as the “building with the scaffolding” instead of the cultural jewel that it is.
The Gusmans are the last, best hope for the Olympia Theater’s return as a historical destination that is unique in all of Miami. The City of Miami should give back the Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts to the Gusmans.
Any questions or comments, please reach out to Grant Miller at 305-323-8206 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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