Dade's Greatest Hits

A requiem for some heavyweights that have tussled with the wrecking ball and lost

Once, the two-mile-long stretch of scenic bayfront property along Brickell Avenue was lined with dozens of estates, mansions set in a lush subtropical setting. Jeweler Louis C. Tiffany lived on the street that came to be called Millionaire's Row; so did lawyer and politician William Jennings Bryan and Miami Beach pioneer Carl Fisher. But most of the homes were torn down during the past few decades, when the City of Miami turned the area into a financial district augmented by high-rise condos.

The Gralynn Hotel, which was built at the turn of the century as a private residence, underwent renovation and opened in 1908 as one of Miami's first inns. Located on SE First Avenue near First Street, the Gralynn competed for tourists with its much larger neighbors, the Halcyon and the Royal Palm. Its elegantly detailed wooden verandas long obscured by masonry, the graceful structure was demolished in 1969. A block of one-story shops now stands in its place.

The Roney Plaza, designed by the same firm that drew up the Freedom Tower and the Biltmore Hotel, was a Mediterranean-Revival gem on Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. Developers knocked it down in 1962 to build the bland monstrosity that now sits in its place.

Thousands of other noteworthy structures have fallen to make room for new buildings. Many, to borrow a phrase from local historian Arva Moore Parks, "slipped away" in the days before the preservation movement took hold locally. But dozens have been lost in recent years in spite of ordinances designed to protect them.

Following is a chronological list -- dating back to 1981, when Dade County passed its historic-preservation ordinance -- of the most lamentable demolitions.

-Kirk Semple
New Yorker Hotel (1940-1981)
While the razing of the New Yorker predated the passage of Metro's ordinance by a few weeks, the temporal coincidence of the events links them in the preservation annals of Dade. "That was the one that triggered the beginning of the preservation ordinance in Miami Beach," remembers Nancy Liebman, now a member of the Miami Beach City Commission. Located at 1611 Collins Ave. in South Beach, the Henry Hohauser-designed New Yorker was one of a series of grand Art Deco hotels built on the Beach during the early 1940s. It was also part of the Miami Beach Architectural Art Deco District, federally designated in 1979.

Three years after the New Yorker's demolition, Miami Beach experienced an aftershock of sorts when the Bulgarian artist Christo's celebrated Surrounded Islands project attracted national press. "They came to Miami and wrote about the historical significance of Miami Beach and the New Yorker going down," says Liebman. "The New Yorker became the symbol as to why we needed an ordinance to protect the [Art Deco] District."

Holsum Bakery building
(1926-1982)
This structure, at the intersection of South Dixie Highway and Red Road, was built as a movie theater but switched to bread production after a year. Holsum took over the site in 1934 and continued baking operations there until the early 1980s, when the building was sold to developers who were planning the ambitious Bakery Centre mall, which opened in 1985. The mall has been a commercial flop, inspiring its current owners to draw up plans for another demolition.

University of Miami architecture professor Aristides Millas laments the fact that reuse studies, prepared by his school in order to suggest ways to incorporate the old structure into the mall, were largely ignored by Bakery Centre developers. "It was a big mistake," Millas says of the project. "An architectural failure. The layout didn't work and it didn't work for the neighborhood."

The old bakery, he adds, had worked just fine. "They had great Christmas displays -- the whole building was decorated. And there was that smell of baking bread. All that makes Miami's history, and that's gone."

Ryan Motors building
(1925-1983)
Florida Power & Light's destruction of this auto showroom was a study in bad taste. The structure, located at 400 SW Second Ave. near the Miami River, was an example of the neoclassical style with touches of Art Deco. It was designed by Robert Law Weed, one of boomtown Miami's best-known architects (his work includes the Boulevard Shops near the Omni Mall, the Miami Beach Burdines, and Miami Shores Elementary School). The site was designated as a landmark during Metro's comprehensive 1977 survey, but the City of Miami never got around to bestowing official designation.

Despite efforts to stay the demolition, FPL knocked down the building to clear room for its new Miami headquarters. Ironically, the bulldozers were cranked up in the midst of National Historic Preservation Week.

Preservationists were able to salvage some furnishing and decorative elements, including a chandelier and the cantilevered ceiling, which is now displayed at the Wolfsonian Foundation on South Beach. "It's not really preservation as we want it," comments veteran preservationist Don Slesnick. "It could have been saved," he adds, noting that the new building doesn't fully overlap the site of the old structure.

Mary Elizabeth Hotel (1921-1983)
Everybody who was anybody hung out at the Mary Elizabeth, if they were black and passed through Miami during the middle decades of this century. Count Basie and W.E.B. Du Bois slept here; so did Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson. Dominating the 600 block of NW Second Avenue, the Mary Elizabeth was the largest, fanciest black hotel in segregated South Florida, one where black musicians would gather to jam after returning from evening gigs at whites-only spots in Miami Beach.

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