Developer Tibor Hollo Helped Build Miami

An epic condo bust can't burst his bubble.

"You know those animals in California who can sense an earthquake coming before it happens?" asks Tibor, clasping his bony hands behind his head and leaning back in a reclining desk chair. "This is the ninth time I've been through this cycle, and back in 2006, I got that feeling: Something is not right here."

Tibor Hollo was born in 1927 in Budapest, Hungary, but grew up in France until Germany invaded Poland and World War II erupted across the continent. In early 1941, the Jewish Hollos were arrested and sent to Drancy, a concentration camp just outside Paris. Tibor was 14 years old.

Hollo enjoys a view of Bayfront Park from his office.
Michael McElroy
Hollo enjoys a view of Bayfront Park from his office.
He's renting condos in his latest project, the Opera Tower.
Michael McElroy
He's renting condos in his latest project, the Opera Tower.

After a few months, the French shipped the Hollos to a Nazi death camp. The family was held briefly at Auschwitz, where Tibor and his father were separated from his mother. He never saw her again.

"My mom, rest in peace, was killed before we were forced to march to Mauthausen, Austria," Hollo says.

Hollo and his father survived the long, cold trek and found a way to survive at Mauthausen, a camp of 85,000 prisoners in northern Austria, until soldiers from the U.S. 11th Armored Division arrived May 5, 1945. Even today, Hollo has difficulty talking about his time in Nazi hands.

"I was very young, so it's hard to say what kind of effect the experience really had," Hollo says. "I was 14 when I went in and 17 when I came out. I know those are formative years, but I can't say if my time there changed me. How would I know?"

After his liberation, Hollo made his way back to France, where he earned an architecture degree and saved enough money to buy sea passage to Ellis Island. He landed in New York with $18 in his pocket and a degree that impressed no one.

He started work in a curtain factory and eventually found a job as an estimator for a general contractor. The company routinely turned down contracts on New York's rough waterfront, and as Hollo worked his new job, he came to a quick realization. "I found out that working the waterfront was difficult and very scummy work, and not many contractors would bid on it," Hollo says. "So after I put together a few hundred dollars, I quit and started my own firm and underbid the few contractors interested in that kind of work."

When Hollo showed that he could get projects completed on time and at a low cost and that he was willing to work in tough areas that didn't attract many other businesses, his workload exploded. A few bids in lower Manhattan turned into larger contracting projects around New York City, which turned into bids from Detroit to San Francisco. By 1956, Hollo's contracting company was one of the ten largest in the United States. But the work was also exhausting, and at 29 years old, Hollo decided it was time to start over.

On a business trip to Florida to work on a project in Cape Canaveral, Hollo fell in love with the Sunshine State. He sold his contracting business, left New York, and moved to Miami, eager for a fresh start. He would use his savings to become a developer. His friends thought he was crazy.

"Some people dream and conceive. And other people can put those dreams on paper, and that's the blueprint. And then other people can go out and realize the blueprint and make it reality," Hollo says. "But as a developer, I get to be all those people. I get to dream it and then make it real. It's incredibly satisfying, and that's what I wanted to do."

When Hollo arrived in 1956, South Florida had already seen several dramatic cycles of boom and bust. For 130 years, gently swaying palm trees, clean ocean air, and miles of blue water had lured investors to Las Olas Boulevard, Biscayne Boulevard, Clematis Street, Atlantic Avenue, and South Beach. In the roaring '20s, developers built Mediterranean and Middle Eastern fantasies on canals east of downtown Fort Lauderdale, and dreamers dredged up the Everglades to build Boca Raton. But by the end of the decade, the party was over. Half-built subdivisions would rot and projects would fall into disrepair for almost 20 years, until the Great Depression and World War II had passed.

Hollo's dream was to bend South Florida, then a still-budding metropolis, to his vision of the future. That vision wasn't shared by returning GIs who used their government pensions to move to faraway suburbs and buy big cars. But South Florida had only one direction to grow. "You can only grow north-south, not east-west, because of the water and the swamps," Hollo says. "And at some point, you're going to have to grow vertically, because you're going to run out of north-south."

Hollo's career as a developer began modestly but successfully, with midtown office buildings and apartment complexes. As his business grew, he started lecturing at colleges about the day when high-rise, "multipurpose" buildings downtown would replace suburbs straddling the Everglades. Within five years, Hollo developed his first high-rise office tower, at 888 Brickell Ave. in Miami. That building's success showed the dream was possible.

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