Key West, Florida Pritam Singh's Strange Career

An eccentric developer brings good taste to a tacky island

  • Share
  • Read Later

At 9 o'clock on a weekday evening, having just flown in from his Vermont retreat, following the previous week's human rights mission into the hills of El Salvador, Pritam Singh is touring the best piece of real estate on Key West: the Truman Annex, a former Navy property where Harry Truman had his Little White House.

Singh owns the place now, and one is unsure which jarring and inapposite piece of his biography best begins to explain him: That he is a former SDS organizer who is building a Ritz-Carlton hotel? Or that he is a developer whose fondest wish is to run away with Sea Shepherd, a Greenpeace splinter group, and ram whale ships? Perhaps that he is a 36-year-old Massachusetts- born Sikh of French-Canadian extraction, in a turban and a Ralph Lauren polo shirt? Or that he read about this 102-acre property one Sunday in 1986 and bought it on a hunch three days later for $17.25 million, outbidding a group of Alaskan Indians bearing federal pollution-compensation credits? Around Singh, one sometimes needs to stop, press rewind and take it all in once more, slowly.

"This is exciting," he tells his architect, surveying the half-finished plaza he has conceived as the social center of the new community he is building. "Have you done the guardhouse? Let's go see the guardhouse." Singh is minutely attentive to aesthetics, even with interest costs and overhead running $30,000 a day. The guardhouse, it turns out, is coming along nicely, except for some ugly screens, which Singh promptly removes from the muntined French doors. He peers at a Government facility up the road: "Now we gotta get the Navy to straighten out the Stalag 13 look there. Those guys are so subtle."

When he is done with the $250 million project in 1992, Singh intends the Truman Annex to be an environmentally sound, architecturally pure, socially engineered complex of 700 homes, condominiums, shops and hotel rooms. His design guidelines, reflecting the conch-house architecture of historical Key West, run to 27 dogmatic pages: "White is the preferred and approved basic color for all structures." "Each single-family unit shall have a bougainvillea within the front-yard area . . ." What he is building is an enclave away from the trashed-out, mixed-up modern world, and he gleefully plans to earn a pile of money doing it.

Singh has sea-blue eyes, magnified by thick, round glasses; his beard, unshaved since he was 17, is sparse and wiry. Born Paul LaBombard, he was, in adult eyes, a bad influence on anybody who knew him as a teenager. He ran away from his working-class family, smoked dope and organized a high school SDS chapter. Lacking money for college, he spent two winters camping out and gathering shells for a living in Key West. He was arrested at the Mayday antiwar demonstrations in Washington in 1971, and spent three days locked up in the basement of the Department of Justice. Afterward he sought spiritual growth in a Sikh ashram in Massachusetts, where he remained for five years before revolting against the power-hungry leader.

Singh says his past and present connect perfectly. He was always good at organizing things. He has always tried to live a moral life. "I don't see any divergence in my program," he says. In 1979 he borrowed $7,500, started rehabbing buildings in New England and prospered; luck or savvy got him into Key West before the Northeast real estate market went flat.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2
  4. 3