Off Miami's Beaten Path
Traces of Florida's heritage abound in some of its earliest structures, Mediterranean Revival masterpeices, and Cuban-influenced Modernist icons
he first things that come to mind when most folks think about Miami are the Art Deco hotels of Miami Beach, made famous by Miami Vice and the thousands of size-zero fashion models set against those buildings’ lavish geometries and industrial motifs in magazine shoots. I should know. Art Deco architecture has become a postcard image of my hometown. Still, having grown up here, I’ve come to cherish not just the stereotypical Miami icons but also those hidden gems you’ll find outside the tourist districts—striking historic buildings most people have yet to discover.
Only a few knowledgeable insiders, for example, could tell you that the very first of Miami’s Art Deco buildings sits far from the beach, hidden past a tangle of interstate overpasses on a nearly forgotten plot by the Miami River.
I’d caught glimpses of the spectacular Scottish Rite Masonic Temple at 471 N.W. Third St. before, usually from a distance or while zipping past on my way to Garcia’s Seafood Grille & Fish Market on the next block. (Some of the best seafood in town, which is saying a lot in a city on the ocean.) But once I stepped inside, I understood exactly why, as the Rite’s General Secretary Herman Gonzalez told me, engineers called in to repair hurricane damage kept shaking their heads in wonder.
It’s not just the Egyptian–Art Deco style with the double-headed eagles perched on the entablature, the ziggurat roof and cupola, or the 50 hand-painted, 41-foot-tall by 50-foot-wide canvas tableaus depicting the Freemasons’ symbolic rituals. Not even the original Skinner organ with its 1,995 pipes, miles of wiring, handcrafted wood stops, and electrically controlled bellows.
No. The thing that amazed them most about the 1924 structure was its ingenious pre-air-conditioning ventilation system. It all starts with the four three-story Doric columns out front. They’re hollow and transport outside air into the building by way of ducts installed in the deep, cool recesses of the building. As the relatively cooler outside air rises through vents in the floor, an open venting system in the theater ceiling, cleverly concealed by extravagant stucco ornamentation three stories above the orchestra pit, allows hot air to escape.
But the majestic building shows the sure signs of time and slow decay. There’s visible wood rot and crumbling pieces of stucco. And the dwindling cadre of dues-paying members lacks the resources to fight back. The lodge had more than 20,000 members 25 years ago; fewer than 1,500 remain today. Once an active center for Miami’s elite, the building now sits empty all but a couple of nights a month.
After it was built, the Masonic Temple sparked a blaze of Art Deco buildings across the region, with hundreds constructed from the 1920s through the early 1940s. Even gas stations jumped on the craze. What’s known as the Gulf Gas Station at 17th Avenue and Coral Way is one of several mixed Mediterranean Revival–Art Deco stations the oil company built in post-Depression Miami. This one, built in 1938, is the only one still standing. Virtually unchanged, it remains a working gas station, with its low-pitched barrel-tile roofs and arched windows in the Mediterranean tradition.
Even my five-year-old daughter is mesmerized by its most distinctive design features as we drive by on the way to school: The gas pump canopies set on stylized columns suggest cartoon coil springs and Dr. Seuss clouds.
Both playful and functional, with symbolic and ornamental elements, Art Deco evolved through different phases. The streamlined Moderne variation seemed ideal for the nearby waterfront building that made Miami the “Air Gateway Between the Americas.” The clean, sweeping lines of the Pan American Seaplane Base and Terminal Building suggested the aerodynamics and speed of air travel, fitting for what was at the time one of the largest and most modern seaplane terminals in the world.
Located at 3500 Pan American Dr., the 1934 terminal building could accommodate an unprecedented four of the airline’s famously luxurious Clipper flying boats at once. At its peak, it handled 50,000 air passengers a year, including FDR, the first U.S. president to travel by air while in office. (He left the terminal en route to the 1943 Casablanca conference.) Since 1954, the terminal has served as Miami’s City Hall. The original ticket counter is gone. So is the giant globe that once sat in the floor; it’s now a couple of miles away in the lobby of the Miami Science Museum. But murals depicting the history of flight still circle the ceiling, and historic photos showing the terminal in its heyday, including one of Charles and Anne Lindbergh boarding a seaplane, line the halls and staircase.
The whole thing sits on Dinner Key, which used to be an island until the military filled in the gap to the mainland. Now, a nice stroll takes me past old hangars and a marina that’s always filled with luxury speedboats whose owners frequent Monty’s Raw Bar. It’s one of Coconut Grove’s popular waterfront institutions and one of my favorite places to kick back on a hot day, with live music and conch fritters that both have just the right amount of spice.
Before Art Deco began shaping Miami’s skyline, it seems the most common style of Florida architecture was Mediterranean Revival—a modernized melding of Old World arches, columns, and barrel-tile roofs. You can see it in the iconic 1924 Miami News and Metropolis Building (now the Freedom Tower) in downtown Miami, the 1927 Coral Gables City Hall, or many of the private homes along Biscayne Bay.
Less well known is the Olympia Theater and Office Building, at 174 E. Flagler St. in downtown Miami. The 10-story high-rise, built in 1926, houses one of just two surviving atmospheric theaters in the state and was the fi rst air-conditioned building in the county. Designed to re-create the feel of a walled, open-air Italian palazzo, the Olympia, like all atmospheric theaters, features a ceiling that gives the illusion of an open sky. The last time I was there, it was for my oldest son’s high school graduation, and I have to admit: The scenery was so breathtaking that it was hard to keep my eyes on the ceremony.
The building above it exhibits Mediterranean Revival ornamentation on the exterior. Unfortunately, it’s marred by scaffolding—not because of ongoing construction, but to protect pedestrians as the bond between the exterior bricks and the cinderblock structure fails.
In southern Florida, where moisture, humidity, heat, and salt are often the cause of such slow deterioration, hurricanes commonly bring swifter destruction. Only a few structures from Miami’s earliest days remain standing. Most fell victim to the great hurricane of 1926, which nearly wiped out the city, or to developers who razed them to make room for something new.
But there is the Palmetto Guesthouse. Built in 1906, it soon became the Rose Arms and was one of the city’s first hotels. “When you first came to Miami you could go stay at [railroad magnate Henry] Flagler’s hotel downtown or, less expensively, stay here,” says owner Sallye Jude.
When Jude bought the wood Florida Vernacular building in 1984, it was a termite-infested fl ophouse, with 21 narrow rooms and a single bathroom, renting space at $14 a week. She also bought three neighboring historic houses, with plans to renovate all four and create a bed-and-breakfast compound. After spending close to $3.5 million restoring dark wood floors and coffered ceilings, updating the wiring and plumbing, and installing a fire sprinkler system, she opened the Miami River Inn in 1990 at 118 S.W. South River Dr. There are now 37 rooms in all, each with modern amenities and furnished with period pieces.
It’s an uncommonly charming place to stay along the riverfront, and a welcome rarity at the edge of Little Havana—homey, quiet, and quaint.
Although the Bacardi buildings (yes, that Bacardi) are a few miles north of Little Havana at 2100 Biscayne Blvd., their style states clearly, “I’m from Cuba.” Architectural icons built by a family that settled in Miami after fleeing Castro’s revolution, the Bacardi headquarters exhibit the Bacardi family’s Modernist sensibilities and Cuban heritage.
They very deliberately merge art and innovative engineering, creating a striking corporate and cultural symbol.
The seven-story main tower, completed in 1964, floats above the plaza. Massive murals of traditional Spanish blue-and-white azulejos—28,000 hand-painted, glazed, and baked tiles in all—completely overlay two exterior walls. The second building, added in 1973, rises 47 feet above the ground around a central core. The outside walls are made of one-inch-thick hammered-glass mosaic panels, designed to withstand hurricane-force winds.
More often than not, though, it’s not winds that threaten Miami’s historic structures. It’s development or neglect. Miami has not always put a premium on preserving its past.
The influx of Cuban refugees in the 1960s, for example, sparked a rash of new development. And while that made way for such distinctive structures as those found at the Bacardi complex, it wiped out many of the region’s older structures. My kids will never see the red Art Deco “S” on top of the downtown Sears where I sat on Santa’s lap. Or look out over the bay from the restaurant at the top of the Mediterranean Revival 1926 Columbus Hotel.
Still, those of us who have watched Miami grow and change are thrilled by what remains. “We’ve been able, surprisingly, to duck the bullet in losing some of these great buildings,” says historian Paul George. It can take a supreme effort, though, to keep from losing some of Miami’s most magnificent structures.
Take, for instance, the Miami Marine Stadium. Completed in 1963, the 6,566-seat grandstand is, in the words of National Trust President Stephanie Meeks, “an icon of the modern movement.” It’s all dramatic angles and open spaces. Poured entirely of concrete, its striking cantilevered roof sits like a series of seagulls, wings sharply cocked, settling for a landing at the water’s edge.
Up until 1992, it was the venue for hundreds of events, where bands and politicians alike played to the audience from a floating stage anchored in front. I saw my one and only hydroplane boat race there. I remember the boats skipping close to the shoreline across from the stadium, throwing up sheets of spray, then screaming down the straightaway, engines roaring.
After Hurricane Andrew, the city closed it, contending it had been structurally damaged by the storm. It has sat abandoned ever since, vulnerable to the elements and the attacks of vandals. Today the stadium is a sad and decrepit monument, marred by graffiti, streaked with grime, its seats ripped out and broken.
Thanks to a bold effort, though, by a group called Friends of Miami Marine Stadium, there is hope. Their determination to attract support for the structure gained traction in 2009, when the National Trust placed it on the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, and the World Monuments Fund added it to the 2010 Watch List. The city, under the direction of a new mayor, has since reversed course and adopted plans to restore, not demolish the stadium.
Welcome as the words were for preservationists, there was only $3 million in public money to back them up—not nearly enough to foot the $30 million bill.
So they have proposed an innovative solution: Ask the city to give them two years to raise $27 million to pay for a restoration that would renovate the stadium, replace the broken asphalt parking lots surrounding it with greenery and a waterfront park, and reopen it to the public. “They’ve waited for 20 years,” says Jorge Hernandez, the group’s cofounder and National Trust vice chair. “All we’re saying is, just give us this timeframe to bring you the rest of the money. If in two years we can’t raise the money, then that’s it.”
It’s a tremendous cause. And a tremendous challenge—the work of bringing important places back from the brink, or even just maintaining historic architecture, almost always is. But success means that maybe my kids won’t look back on the lost Miami icons of their youth; success means there’s a chance I might take them to the Marine Stadium to see their very first boat race, too.