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Building Building on an idea

Only nine years after Walter Loebenberg first thought of a Holocaust museum, its second and vastly bigger home has been designed to do him proud.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE, Times Staff Writer

Art by Teresanne Cossetta of the Times staff
Walter Loebenberg

Without Walter Loebenberg, there would be no Tampa Bay Holocaust Memorial Museum and Educational Center.

Amy S. Epstein

Amy S. Epstein, president of the Holocaust Center.

Nick Benjacob

This is from my heart," says Nick Benjacob, the Israeli-born architect who designed the center.

Larry Wasser

Larry Wasser, executive director of the Holocaust Center.

Steve Goldman

Steve Goldman, Holocaust Center director.

Nine years ago Walter Loebenberg had a germ of an idea. He had caught a glimpse of the Dallas Holocaust museum on videotape.

Tampa Bay should have such a museum, he thought. So the businessman immediately began an effort to acquire its first artifact, a railroad boxcar similar to the one on display at the Texas museum.

After arduous negotiations and a yearlong delay, the 15-ton boxcar from Gdania, Poland, arrived at the Port of Tampa in January 1990. Two years later Loebenberg's dream, the Tampa Bay Holocaust Memorial Museum and Educational Center, opened on Madeira Beach.

As the museum prepares for its Feb. 21 grand opening in larger, new quarters in downtown St. Petersburg, Loebenberg, founder and chairman, is ecstatic.

"I feel so good, I can't describe it. It's beyond belief. It's sensational," he said.

"I tell you, we did not envision this, but from the time we started it just kept growing, which brought us to where we are today."

Steve Goldman, Holocaust Center director from the beginning, agreed.

"I and everybody else never had this vision," he said. "We were simply going to build a small core exhibition at Madeira Beach. We had outgrown the other space. We had no room for classrooms."

In fact, during its first month, the Holocaust Center attracted more than 24,000 visitors. In the next five years, at least 125,000 more would visit the 4,000-square foot facility, which by then also housed a print and audio-visual library as well as photographic archives.

Convinced of the need to expand to accommodate growing public interest, in 1996 officials purchased a building almost seven times larger than the Madeira Beach facility.

"We were lucky enough to find this building, which is perfect for us," Loebenberg said of the former First Florida Bank at 55 Fifth St. S.

In addition to its larger size, the new center also has the added advantage of being close to St. Petersburg's cultural hub, officials say.

For instance, when the Tampa Bay Devil Rays open their first season this spring at nearby Tropicana Field, the museum will offer an exhibit featuring Jackie Robinson, the African-American player who integrated major league baseball.

A relationship is being developed with the city's other museums.

"We mesh with them," said Larry Wasser, executive director. "'We are not in competition with them at all. I think a good example is the opening of Devil Rays baseball. We are all doing something in conjunction with baseball. It is in our best interest to get people to come to our museum and to go to the other museums."

The Holocaust Center will be an added stop on the Looper, the downtown trolley whose route covers downtown businesses and entertainment centers. And setting its sights farther afield, the center also has developed a visitors' guide for tour companies.

These are some of the elements center officials hope will ensure the facility's success. They hope to generate enough income from entrance fees, memberships, donations and the museum store to meet a projected annual operating budget of $600,000 to $700,000.

"That is just to start with," Wasser said.

He added that the center will need about 100,000 visitors annually to help keep it solvent.

"We say about 100,000 because we know of the 100,000, half of them are going to be kids and kids don't pay," he said.

A cultural facilities grant is being sought from the state of Florida, though center officials will not receive an answer to their request until July, Wasser said. In the past, it has received grants for educational exhibits from the Pinellas County Arts Council. Last October the center was able to hire a teacher with the dual role of educational director and teacher on assignment for Holocaust education for Pinellas County Schools. The position is financed by the center and the school district.

The center is close to meeting its capital campaign goal of $6.4-million, which Wasser says will happen quickly once the facility opens and additional emphasis can be given to soliciting money from corporations. Still, $5.2-million has been raised since the campaign began late last summer. Businesses have made substantial donations, but most donations have come from individuals.

"That was our plan," Wasser said. "The idea being to go to people who knew about the Holocaust. People who were survivors. People who had lost family members, also liberators. People who fought in World War II. People who were concerned about teaching our kids about prejudice and bigotry."

And those individual gifts have poured in, soaring as high as $1-million.

"We also had a gift of $25 from a Holocaust survivor, a much older lady who in her note said that was all that she could give," Wasser said. "She is on Social Security. In the context that it was given, it makes a powerful gift."

Though the Jewish community has given "a tremendous amount" to the museum, others have been generous, as well, said the executive director.

"One of the first ones to respond was the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg and the Catholic Diocese of Venice, Fla.," Wasser said.

In addition, several companies donated their services to help with the extensive renovations required to create a museum out of a former bank.

Among them was Nick Benjacob & Associates, a Gulfport architectural firm and general contractor.

"This is from my heart," said Benjacob, the Israeli-born architect who designed the building.

"This is a very rewarding project. It has a connection to my family," he said, explaining that all of his Russian relatives were victims of the Holocaust.

But his reasons for contributing to the project reach beyond that, Benjacob said.

"I like the idea that this museum will not show you the atrocities that happened," he said.

"It will show you how to build a future with tolerance and not a repetition of the Holocaust. Tolerance between Israelis and Arabs, blacks and whites, females and males, homosexuals and heterosexuals, religious tolerance."

Museum president Amy S. Epstein, who lost 92 members of her family in the Holocaust, believes emphasis must be given to teaching these lessons of tolerance to children.

"One of today's greatest challenges is to prepare all children to live and work together harmoniously in an increasingly multicultural and multiracial society," she said.

"It is my hope that the Holocaust museum will play an active role in educating children and others to learn to accept ethnic, religious and racial diversity."

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