Big money, fast spending, free fall

G. Ware Travelstead, builder on a huge scale, is in epic bankruptcy

July 04, 1999|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,SUN STAFF

When Gooch Ware Travelstead dreamed, he dreamed big. When he built, he built on a gargantuan scale -- skyscrapers looming over midtown Manhattan; desolate London docklands transformed into a glittering new city; a spectacular tower on a beach in Barcelona.

Product of a modest Baltimore upbringing, Travelstead lived with abandon, outspending ordinary millionaires at posh restaurants and resorts.

He planned a ski resort with the shah of Iran; helped Margaret Thatcher muscle her capitalist vision through Parliament; charmed Prince Charles into endorsing his splashy constructions; bought Bruce Babbitt's Arizona ranches when his old friend became secretary of the interior; lent $8,000 to Sidney Biddle Barrows, the "Mayflower madam," to hire a lawyer.

And now that he is falling, Travelstead naturally is falling on a grand scale.

His bankruptcy has dragged on for three years, employed a dozen Baltimore lawyers and left a trail of furious partners, employees and friends. They call him not G. Ware Travelstead, but Beware Travelstead.

He is forced to scrape by on a $15,000-a-month "allowance" from the bankruptcy account. In Spain, he faces a criminal charge of misappropriation -- a charge he says was concocted by a former CIA agent with whom he shared a Planet Hollywood franchise.

"I became a convenient target," Travelstead, 61, said in a recent interview in his lawyer's office on St. Paul Street, the first time he has spoken publicly about his financial troubles.

Most of the aggrieved investors and employees made plenty of money -- they just wanted to make more, Travelstead says. With a wave of the hand, he retreats to what it takes to make omelets.

"I've broken plenty of eggs," he says.

In an age in which most buildings are safe imitations, Travelstead seems a throwback to earlier times when grandiose egos built their colossal reflections, from the pyramids to the Taj Mahal. Where others had bookkeepers pinching pennies, Travelstead confidently lavished millions -- usually other people's millions -- on his ideas.

A big man -- he's 6 feet 2 and weighs well over 200 pounds -- with thinning gray hair, Travelstead nearly bounced from his chair as he relived the glory days.

By his own estimate, his wealth peaked in the mid-1980s at close to $100 million. He had a 135-foot motor yacht, a private jet he flew himself, a fleet of luxury cars, a London townhouse, a Connecticut mansion, an island estate on the Eastern Shore and, for a while, a fondness for cocaine.

He invested some money in preserving his name: There's a G. Ware Travelstead Professor of Architecture at the Harvard University graduate school of design.

This month, Travelstead plans to move from Barcelona to Virginia Beach with his third wife, Cheryl, 36, her two children and their baby son. But between him and a new start is a legal and financial quagmire.

"When all this is over, I'll be lucky to have a few million dollars left," he lamented. But then, he added, "I've never done anything just to make money. I like to create things. I love to see a blank sheet of paper and have an idea and a few years later see it built."

Edythe Travelstead, his second wife, an interior designer and his collaborator through the high-flying '70s and '80s, watched that process play and replay from Utah to Australia.

"Visionary he certainly is," says the former Mrs. Travelstead, 57, who now lives a quieter life renovating old houses on Nantucket. "And to make visions come true, I guess a visionary has to be a little bit of a con man."

"He's larger than life," says Baltimore developer David S. Cordish, who played lacrosse for City College when Travelstead played for Baltimore Polytechnic Institute. "He paints with a big brush on a big canvas. Ware's the stuff movies are made of."

Martin Kabat, business manager at Washington College in Chestertown before he was recruited as bookkeeper for the Barcelona hotel project, says, "Ware has this incredible ability to charm people when he wants to. He can be incredibly generous. But he's not a saint. He's a developer."

Like Travelstead, Kabat faces Spanish criminal charges. Both say the charges are groundless, the work of Ray Velazquez, Travelstead's former partner in a planned five-restaurant Planet Hollywood franchise in Spain. They say Velazquez has harassed them and distorted the facts in an attempt to acquire Travelstead's Spanish assets cheap.

A Cuban-born former CIA man and Treasury agent who proudly displays signed photographs of himself with Presidents Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Velazquez says he merely wants to see Travelstead brought to justice.

"I just want to stop him so he can't hurt anyone else," says Velazquez, 59, a Miami businessman.

A little bit of magic

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