Built from the ground up

Man who led fight for Ar­sht Cen­ter built it again at 81 — out of Le­gos

South Florida Sun-Sentinel Palm Beach (Sunday) - - Travel & Life - By Dou­glas Hanks

Stu Blum­berg still re­mem­bers that first Lego set he tried to build, a red car with pop-up head­lights and doors that opened on tiny hinges. It ended up too com­pli­cated for this Lego be­gin­ner. Blum­berg slammed down the half-built car in frus­tra­tion when he couldn’t get the blocks to fit.

“I just wasn’t used to how the pieces locked to­gether,” Blum­berg, 81, re­called of that Fer­rari set he bought on a whim three years ago. “When I was mak­ing mod­els as a kid, I was al­ways able to glue them.”

At age 78, Blum­berg de­cided not to let his first Lego set be his last. The re­tired pres­i­dent of Mi­ami-Dade County’s ho­tel as­so­ci­a­tion went back to the Lego store at the Aven­tura Mall and bought a larger sports-car kit for an or­ange Porsche.

This time he got the pieces to stay to­gether. That mini Porsche launched three years of in­creas­ingly com­pli­cated Lego builds of cas­tles, space­ships and sta­di­ums. Re­cently, Blum­berg took on his most com­plex Lego project yet.

“If you don’t have the right height on th­ese pil­lars, all of a sud­den it goes on an an­gle and you’re screwed,” Blum­berg said as he hunched over his lat­est Lego cre­ation, a 6,630-piece model of down­town Mi­ami’s Adri­enne Ar­sht Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts. “It’s all an­gles.”

Blum­berg, who helped lead the fight to build the Ar­sht Cen­ter in the 1990s, or­dered the Ar­sht set from a soft­ware con­sul­tant in Topeka who de­signs cus­tom­ized Lego build­ings us­ing sec­ond-hand blocks. While not an of­fi­cial Lego prod­uct, the replica of the César Pelli-de­signed con­cert hall would fall at the very top of Lego’s com­plex­ity scale. It has more pieces than the Harry Pot­ter Hog­warts Cas­tle set (6,020 pieces) and not too far off from the toy that’s listed as the largest Lego model on the market: the $800 Mil­len­nium Fal­con (7,541 pieces).

“It’s a great hobby,” Blum­berg said, near­ing the end of his third year as a Lego builder. “It keeps your mind sharp. And your re­flexes sharp.”

For Blum­berg, Le­gos in­jected a new fo­cus af­ter nearly 10 years of re­tire- ment from a job that had him in the cen­ter of ev­ery ma­jor is­sue fac­ing Mi­ami’s tourism in­dus­try.

As pres­i­dent of the Greater Mi­ami and the Beaches Ho­tel As­so­ci­a­tion, Blum­berg was the in­dus­try’s pri­mary lo­cal lob­by­ist and reg­u­larly found him­self in var­i­ous spats with po­lit­i­cal lead­ers in Tal­la­has­see and Mi­ami. He re­tired in 2009, say­ing he “couldn’t con­tinue to fight wind­mills by him­self.”

Blum­berg was win­dow shop­ping in Aven­tura when a Le­gos dis­play caught his eye. He knew he needed a hobby and thought build­ing a minia­ture car could be a fun chal­lenge.

“At my age, I don’t ex­er­cise,” he said.

“I don’t play domi­noes. I don’t golf.”

Blum­berg got his start in the hey­day of Mi­ami Beach ho­tels, work­ing as a bell­hop in the sincede­mol­ished Amer­i­cana Ho­tel in Bal Har­bour in the 1950s. He went on to run ho­tels as a gen­eral man­ager and be­friended Jackie Glea­son when the Great One brought his show to Mi­ami Beach.

Pho­tos of him with Glea­son share wall space with nearly two dozen of his Lego cre­ations on dis­play in the step-down garage off the kitchen in the North Bay Vil­lage house he shares with his wife of 56 years, Mar­lene.

There’s the 1,000-brick Ti­tanic, a three-story Ja­panese tower from the Nin­jago se­ries, and a nearly two-foot-tall Apollo rocket next to a Lego space shut­tle. On an­other shelf sits London Bridge, and the Bat­mo­bile, and the Syd­ney Opera House, and a pi­rate ship, and Bos­ton’s Fen­way Park.

Giants Sta­dium is missing — Blum­berg gave that one away as a gift. So is the Lego Taj Ma­hal, a 5,923-piece set that Blum­berg as­sem­bled and then dropped in a stum­ble dur­ing a move from the din­ing room to the garage.

Adri­enne Ar­sht, the wealthy re­tired banker and phi­lan­thropist whose $30 mil­lion nam­ing gift un­der­pins the real-life Ar­sht Cen­ter’s finances, has seen a photo of Blum­berg’s cre­ation. She’s im­pressed. “It’s a bet­ter mock-up than the one César Pelli did 20 years ago,” Ar­sht said.

The two are friends, and Blum­berg said he sent her the photo with an of­fer to put Ar­sht’s name on the Lego ver­sion, too. “I said,

‘It won’t cost you $30 mil­lion, but send a check for what­ever amount,’ ” he re­called.

For Ar­sht, Blum­berg’s Lego cre­ation cap­tures his de­vo­tion to what­ever task has his full at­ten­tion at the mo­ment. “He just never gives up,” she said.

The Ar­sht Cen­ter is the only Mi­ami struc­ture in Blum­berg’s Lego port­fo­lio. Blum­berg was on the board that presided over the fa­mously de­layed, county-funded ven­ture that took five years to build. He has his name on plaques on both ends of a pedes­trian bridge link­ing the two con­cert halls over Bis­cayne Boule­vard, an ar­chi­tec­tural extra that Blum­berg de­manded be added to an al­ready over­flow­ing con­struc­tion bud­get that would top $470 mil­lion.

This year, Blum­berg as­sem­bled that bridge by hand, us­ing dozens of tiny plas­tic bricks.

“I’ll tell you this,” Blum­berg said, “build­ing it was emo­tional. Watch­ing it be­ing built again. In re­al­ity. In real time. Each time, I put some­thing in there, it was like watch­ing the real build­ing be built all over again.”

Blum­berg said it took him about five months to build the Lego Ar­sht, fol­low­ing a com­puter pro­gram on his lap­top that broke down the as­sem­bly into 1,677 in­di­vid­ual in­struc­tions. Each step con­sisted of an an­i­mated slide show­ing where the Lego pieces should be added, us­ing the num- ber of tiny pegs on each brick as an as­sem­bly guide.

“If you make a mis­take, and I have, you have to take it all down,” Blum­berg said. “You go back to that slide, and start again.”

Brett Thiessen, who cre­ated the Ar­sht set for Blum­berg, mostly sells Lego sta­di­ums on his Etsy store, Sta­dium Brick. They cost be­tween $500 and $750, and Blum­berg said the Ar­sht price was in that range. Blum­berg had al­ready built the Fen­way and Giants kits when he re­quested a Mi­ami con­cert hall that would wind up the most com­pli­cated build­ing that Thiessen has ever cre­ated.

“It’s def­i­nitely the most dif­fi­cult to build,” said Thiessen, who cre­ates the kits and in­struc­tions us­ing Lego soft­ware. “It’s the largest, and has the most pieces.”

Blum­berg re­cently watched his most am­bi­tious Lego piece leave his home. Pro­fes­sional art movers loaded up the Ar­sht build­ing for a grander set­ting — inside the Ar­sht cen­ter it­self, where it is dis­played in the lobby of the Knight Con­cert Hall.

Blum­berg said he’s toy­ing with ask­ing Thiessen to cre­ate a Lego set for Mi­ami-Dade’s civil court­house, a 1928 tower that once held a trial for Al Capone. First, he’ll prob­a­bly re­turn to a store-bought Lego set.

“That Harry Pot­ter Hog­wash Cas­tle, or what­ever they call it,” he said. “I miss it. I’m in with­drawal.”


Stu Blum­berg, pho­tographed at his home Nov. 7, spent five months as­sem­bling the Adri­enne Ar­sht Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts out of 6,630 Lego bricks.


Stu Blum­berg, re­tired pres­i­dent of Mi­ami-Dade County’s ho­tel as­so­ci­a­tion, has built the Ar­sht Cen­ter out of Le­gos.

Some of Blum­berg’s Lego cre­ations line the shelves of his den.

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