Emilio's story begins in 1930, when he was was born in Luarca, Asturias, Spain to a loving mother and charismatic father who fought in the Spanish Civil War. Emilio’s father was a mechanic for the rebellion against Dictator Francisco Franco and was seen as a ‘rebel’ and a ‘trouble-maker.’ Because of this, Emilio’s family was made a target by the Spanish Nationalists and they knew that threat to their safety was imminent. Young Emilio, his mother, and his brother fled to his Aunt’s house on the Spanish countryside to hide. Sequestered inside by fear, they went out for food at night so as not to be seen or caught.
In 1935, the family emigrated from Spain to Cuba, where Emilio’s maternal grandmother lived. At just nearly six years old, Emilio boarded a ship to Cuba, spending twelve days on the voyage to a safer home for his family. He never saw his father again. At eight years old, while in Cuba, Emilio received word that his father had died.
While growing up in Cuba, Emilio was highly influenced by his uncles and his grandfather. His grandfather was like a second father to him. He spent twelve years in Jesuit school, Belen, and in 6th grade he tested into an engineering track. While other students played in the middle of their long school day, Emilio drew freehand and drafted – a passion that was catching fire in his formative years. Emilio’s mother remarried when he was twelve years old.
Emilio went to college at the University of Havana and excelled in the Architecture program. The program was notoriously difficult, passing only 26 students of the 390 who originally started. He was THE outstanding student of the architecture school of the early fifties, and every teacher and student in that school knew it. He taught classes to beginner students in the summer, and was teacher to a younger student named Otilia Yanes, who would later become his wife in 1958. He graduated from the University in 1955 and soon after started his own architectural firm. During his time on his own, he designed the Hospital “Liga Contra la Ceguera” (League against Blindness).
In 1959, Emilio was offered a position as Head of the Department of Public Building Projects working under the Cuban government run by Fidel Castro. As a patriotic gesture, Emilio accepted the job and got to work on redesigning the airport which had been burned by Castro, the design of the Soroa Tourist Center, and public beaches between other multiple projects. During his time with the government, several of his works were published in global architectural magazines. As his time in this position went on, he knew that the democratic promises of Castro were false. Morally, he could no longer work for such a government, as his values and principles were being compromised every day spent under the regime.
In 1960, Emilio began planning his family’s escape from Cuba. His wife and baby daughter, along with Otilia’s parents, left for Miami, Florida. They had been living with Otilia’s parents when the baby arrived, but still maintained a condo of their own. The government put Emilio’s house under surveillance, calling in the middle of the night to check to see if he was still home. Wearing a hat and sunglasses to disguise himself, Emilio boarded a plane to Miami with $5.00 in his pocket. Leaving behind his house, cars, art collection, his mother and his stepfather, he arrived in the US without the ability to speak any English. He could understand the written word, but was unable to communicate verbally. Emilio could call his mother back in Cuba on the phone, but couldn’t tell her details since he knew the government had the lines bugged.
Arriving in Miami and reuniting with his wife, young daughter, and wife’s parents, he was offered a job at a firm where he would communicate in English by passing notes back and forth. They had seen his published work and wanted his talents on staff regardless of whether he could speak the language. He worked in Miami for about a year. He and Otilia welcomed their second daughter into the world during their time in Southern Florida.
In 1961, Emilio rented a U-Haul and moved his family up north to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Otilia’s parents had moved. They had told Emilio and Otilia about how wonderful a town it was, so they decided to move their kids up north and settle their roots in a safe, nurturing, and caring environment. After giving birth to their third child, Tom Fernandez, Otilia went to school at night to get her Masters of Education from the University of Cincinnati while Emilio worked during the day for an architectural firm doing renderings and sketches. In 1964, Emilio took these renderings to the President of the Architectural Board of Ohio in hopes of getting his registration. The president was skeptical that a Spanish-speaking man from Cuba could pass the difficult five-day test. Emilio passed every section with flying colors on the first try. He was immediately offered a job by the President of the Architectural Board which he turned down. He could not bend his loyalty from the firm that gave him a chance when he arrived in Cincinnati.
Now that he had passed the test and was a registered Architect, Emilio could realize his dream of artistic freedom. He founded Stallsmith Fernandez Architects (SFA) in 1967 on the simple premise that each client deserves a high degree of personal service, and each project the search to find the “right” design solution, both artistically, and technically. As an Architect and an Engineer, our patron exemplified the modern Master-Architect philosophy of eminent responsibility for the “whole” solution, and for the life of the building. These beliefs permeate our culture even more strongly, 50-years later.
In the late 1980's, Emilio passed down his legacy to son, Tom Fernandez, who serves as Elevar's CEO. Under Tom’s direction, Elevar Design Group has grown into a team of more than 80 employees in four offices. His innovative approach to design has benefited both the clients and the staff alike. Much like his father, Tom’s dedication to Elevar and determination to reach creative and efficient solutions for his clients has led the firm in the growth of multiple markets and a growing staff committed to the same principles.
Emilio Fernandez still comes to work at the Elevar office on a full-time basis with enthusiasm and vigor. He walks through the door each morning and says hello to each person he passes, sometimes stopping to talk about the weekend. Emilio recently turned 89 years old. He personifies the passion, dedication, and determination on which Elevar planted its roots.