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"Is that for sale?"
"Why haven't we seen it? Can we see it today?"
"No. It's in Puerto Rico."
In Puerto Rico with Esteban Padilla.
To get to that point required a considerably less direct metamorphosis for Steve Padilla. Born of well-to-do parents in Arecibo, on the northwest coast; Harvard, 1938-40; Duke, B.S. '41, Padilla had medical school in mind. Instead, he went to war, or at least into the U.S. Army, which tried to make him an electrical engineer. "I got only to DC, I never got the AC," he says.
As a signal corpsman, he recognized his limitations and those of his associate soldiers. "I think, really, I should have paid the U.S. Government for my service time," he says. "I kept arrving in combat zones immediately after the last shot was fired." He also arrived, at the end of the war, on the Riviera, and for three months studied at the Cannes branch of the University of Aix-en-Provence. To beat the prices, he shed his uniform and swam to Eden Roc, where he came ashore to mix with the elite. "I was very sophisticated. I spilled ashes on a lady by the pool. She was very understanding. The lady was a Whitney. She invited me to lunch."
Padilla received his degree in architecture from Nebraska in 1949. "On the East Coast, I had met many Midwesterners who I thought were exceptional people," he says. "I wanted to find out why. I think I found out why they left the Midwest." Turned forever from med school, he studied further at the Sorbonne and at the Universities of Florence and Grenoble. When he returned to Puerto Rico he served in urban renewal projects and later became a special assistant to Luis Munoz Marin, Puerto Rico's first popularly elected governor. Munoz' Operation Bootstrap had lifted the Puerto Rican economy out of the ruck. Next he was sent to Europe by the Economic Development Administration to attract investors. He had accumulated eight years on the Mediterranean when he returned in 1964, and the sights of San Juan brought tears to his eyes.
"The Condado area had become Coney Island. It was extraordinary. Solid walls of hotels and tawdry streets. It was obvious that a new pattern of development had to be found." When a project he was working on collapsed, Padilla was hired by Brewer to come up with a plan for the development of the Palmas area. He was now back to his childhood playground, with new purpose.
Steve Padilla's first master plan was approved by the Puerto Rican government, but not followed up on by Brewer because Brewer was pinched and in a selling mood. Eraser bought. "And there I was, with all my ideas, when Charles Fraser came along," says Padilla. "I was hiding in the sea-grape trees, yelling, 'I got a master plan!'