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.

After integration the hotel shut down and eventually was demolished, reducing to dust a large chunk of black Miami's history. But the Mary Elizabeth's fall was only one late chapter in the decades-long demise of Overtown. Known in its heyday as Colored Town, the area was home to workers who toiled for Henry Flagler. According to historian Dorothy Fields, the neighborhood reached a peak population of 40,000 and supported four weekly newspapers, five hotels, a thriving professional class, a tailor, a shoemaker, a dressmaker, and a milliner. Northwest Second Avenue was the nightlife center, earning the nicknames the Great Black Way and Little Broadway. "They made a right out of a wrong," Fields says of the residents' vibrant response to segregation. "They became a self-contained and self-sustaining community."

But the construction of I-95 in the early 1960s sliced through the heart of that community, displacing thousands of its residents. Further condemnation of property to make room for government buildings, new housing developments, and parking lots drove away even more. "Most of the buildings were nondescript as it relates to national standards," comments Fields, "but for us they were functional." Of the few that remain, six sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Fields is leading an effort to build a folklife village and lure back artists and professionals.

Gesu School (1926-1984)
Located at 130 NE Second St., the Gesu School was part of the oldest Catholic parish in Dade County and sat within a complex that included a rectory and a church. Sarah Eaton, the City of Miami's historic and environmental preservation officer, calls the school, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places an "excellent example of the Mediterranean-Revival style." Though a developer -- and preservationists -- tried to sell the Archdiocese on the idea of renovating the school into luxury offices, the Archdiocese demolished it in 1984. Says Eaton: "That one hurt because we had a new use for it and someone to develop it." A parking lot now stands on the site.

The Biscaya (1925-1987)
In the Twenties and Thirties, the Biscaya on Miami Beach was a Florida vacation fantasy come true: red-tile roof, ornate loggias in the style of a Mediterranean palace, a grand stairway leading to an elegant high-ceilinged ballroom that featured dancing to big-band music, guest rooms overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway. Built in 1925 near the intersection of West Avenue and what is now called the MacArthur Causeway, the ten-story, 242-room structure was one of a string of luxury hotels erected by the famed Carl Fisher.

The Biscaya's glory days came to an end in 1941, when the army converted it into a barracks. After the war, it was run for a time as a retirement home, but by the Eighties it had become an abandoned, crumbling wreck. Owing to its location outside the Art Deco District, the building never received historic designation. City officials eventually declared the vacant structure unsafe and ordered that it be torn down. Preservationists howled in protest. "The Biscaya could be to Miami Beach what the Biltmore now is to Coral Gables A a glorious monument to civic pride," wrote Beth Dunlop, then the Miami Herald's architecture critic. "Restored, the Biscaya could tell the world that Miami Beach, too, is a place proud of its past, an enlightened seaside city. Restored, the Biscaya could be a work of beauty and craftsmanship, bringing Miami Beach esteem and admiration."

Senator Hotel (1939-1988)
The fate of the 42-room Senator, located at 1201 Collins Ave. in the heart of the Art Deco District, became the cornerstone of preservationists' crusade to save Miami Beach's historic landmarks. Famous for its etched-glass windows, portholes, and mermaid frescoes, the building contributed to the architectural style of Collins Avenue, all the more so, says Nancy Liebman, because it was a corner building. "It was a symbol because it was the most beautiful of them," the Miami Beach commissioner says, reeling off other eye-catching corner edifices on Collins: the Tiffany, the Essex, and the Tudor.

Led by the late preservation activist Barbara Capitman, the unsuccessful fight to protect the Senator was the best-coordinated and fiercest the Beach had seen. "It really fortified and strengthened the preservation groups, though, and brought national attention to preservation issues in Miami Beach," says Liebman. "It brought public disgrace to a city that didn't respect its historic properties." After the battle, Miami Beach further strengthened its ordinance by giving the city commission the power to permanently deny demolition of a historic building.

McAllister Hotel (1916-1989)
One of several fashionable hotels that once graced downtown Miami and typified the city's ascendance as a tourist mecca, the Mediterranean Revival-style McAllister stood at 10 Biscayne Blvd., facing Bayfront Park and the bay beyond. Ten stories tall and containing 825 rooms, it was the tallest building in town when it was erected, heralding both the onset of high-rise construction in Miami and hotel development on the boulevard. For years the McAllister was the city's premier hotel, a hub of social and business life. Among its many notable guests were crime figures Al Capone and Legs Diamond.

The hotel was demolished in 1989 along with an adjacent Elks Lodge (another Mediterranean Revival-style specimen) to make way for the Columbus Bazaar shopping arcade.

The list of the McAllister's fallen coevals is a long one. Among them is downtown's Hotel Toledo, constructed between 1910 and 1914 A after the railroad's arrival but before the real estate boom. Originally the Hotel Berni, the three-story masonry structure was designed for the comfort of Miami's earliest tourists, with a profusion of windows and porches to maximize exposure to bay views and breezes. It was demolished in 1988, not long after the owner was sent a notice of public hearing for historic designation, recalls Sarah Eaton, Miami's preservation officer. A parking lot now occupies the site.

"There is no question that Miami was once a really exciting downtown A there was a core to the city," comments Aristides Millas. "But we need the architectural variety that manifests that core, that shows the evolution of a town."

Residence at 2520 Tigertail Ave. (1882-1991)
This two-story wood-frame house in the Silver Bluff neighborhood of Coconut Grove was built in 1882 by Grove pioneers Charles and Isabella Peacock and was probably once part of the Peacock Inn. In recommending it for historic designation. Metro's 1977survey praised the house's "use of materials, adaptability to the area's climate, cohesiveness within the neighborhood, and straightforward functional character."

In 1985 the house was purchased by restaurateur Monty Trainer and a partner. Six years later they secured a demolition permit and knocked it down. There was no hope for a stay of demolition: The City of Miami had failed to bestow a historic designation. Margot Ammidown, then-acting director of Dade's Historic Preservation Division, was quoted at the time as saying, "As far as the history of Coconut Grove, probably next to the Barnacle, it was one the most historic houses."

Even today Coconut Grove is sorely underdesignated. By Sarah Eaton's estimation, there is a "good handful" of neighborhoods that could be eligible for historic designation. Some might encompass hundreds of houses (Miami's three main historic districts A Bayside, Buena Vista, and Morningside -- contain more than 200 buildings apiece). But nearly all the old wooden homes have been lost, Eaton adds, particularly those in the so-called Black Grove, which was settled in the late 1880s by Bahamians who came to Miami by way of Key West and built Conch-style houses with broad gables and ornate balustrade porches that sometimes wrapped around the sides. "Coconut Grove is a good example of someplace that hasn't been completely destroyed yet but is well on its way," Ammidown warns. "Almost nothing in Coconut Grove has been historically designated."

Three Score and Ten Club (1914-1992)
This structure at 243 NE Fourth St. in downtown Miami was built as a residence in 1914, then converted in 1925 to a fishing club by a group of Miami millionaires. The building was notable for its open porch, window awnings, and peaked, green-tiled Oriental roof. In 1941 the property was sold to the Three Score and Ten Club, an organization for septuagenarians that held formal Saturday-night dances.

In 1989 Miami-Dade Community College approached the club with an offer to buy. The two parties reached a deal in 1991 and, at the encouragement of state historic-preservation officials, MDCC agreed to re-create the club's glamorous ballroom in its new building. Still, MDCC professor and local historian Paul George bemoans the loss of the edifice, a reminder of an era when clubs were an important part of Miami's social fabric and evidence that downtown was once a vibrant residential neighborhood.

Algonquin apartments (1924-1993)
Amid the great boom of the 1920s, the Biscayne Boulevard Company developed Biscayne as a commercial alternative to the bustle of downtown Miami and as a link to points north. Lined with palm trees, the thoroughfare was dubbed (by dreamy local PR flacks, no doubt) "the Fifth Avenue of the South" and became a fashionable winter outpost for shops from New York and Paris. Among the buildings constructed during this period were the Algonquin and its sister the Priscilla, both on the 1800 block.

The sites were listed on the National Register of Historic Places, praised by preservationists as excellent examples of the Mediterranean-Revival style and classic remnants of boom-time Miami. But they were allowed to fall into disrepair, along with most of the once-fashionable neighborhood of South Edgewater, located east of the Boulevard behind the Omni Mall.

In the late Eighties, Chinese-American developer Isaac Shih wooed Miami commissioners with a grand scheme to build a residential and commercial "Chinatown" complex on the block where the two buildings stood. The fact that Shih's plans didn't incorporate the existing architectural gems had preservationists on guard from the outset. In 1992, concerned that the developer's project would never get beyond the drawing board, commissioners required that he put up a $250,000 cash bond before being permitted to raze either building. He did. But just after Shih bulldozed the Algonquin (and took a piece out of the Priscilla in the process), preservationists pointed out that city administrators had issued the demolition permit incorrectly: Shih hadn't paid all the requisite fees.

The Dade Heritage Trust subsequently pressured Shih to agree to restore the Priscilla's faaade and incorporate it into his project, and this past March the group sued the developer for reneging on that contract. In May the Trust settled the lawsuit for an undisclosed sum of money, effectively withdrawing the only remaining obstacle to the Priscilla's demise -- Shih's wish from the very start.

Leonard Beach Hotel (1925-1993)
If FPL takes the bad-taste sweepstakes for knocking down the Ryan Motors building, then Miami Beach developer Thomas Kramer, slayer of the Leonard Beach, takes home the award for hubris.

Located at the south end of Ocean Drive, the Leonard Beach was a unique example of what could be done with a 50-by-140-foot lot, the standard in South Beach. But it was never listed as a historic site A no buildings below Sixth Street, in the so-called South Beach Redevelopment Zone, were eligible for historic designation. In 1992 Kramer bought the building (which recently had been remodeled as a quirky, bohemian hotel), undertook his own renovation, and opened a nightclub called Hell, which closed almost immediately.

In June 1993, Aristides Millas was leading an international group of architects and town planners on a tour of historic South Beach. As the sightseers -- whom Kramer had flown into town for a much-ballyhooed South Pointe development charrette -- trundled past the Leonard Beach in the trolley the German developer had rented for the occasion, Millas was astonished to observe that a bulldozer was ramming the building.

Kramer's excuse: the place was structurally unsound. "It was one of a kind and it's gone," sighs Millas. Despite the fact that the area is the oldest section of Miami Beach, he adds, most of South Pointe's landmarks have disappeared.

Coral Gables Coliseum (1927-1993)
While Coral Gables can boast of an admirable recent track record in preservation, one of Dade's most notable losses fell within the boundaries of the City Beautiful. Designed by Anthony Ten Eyck Brown (architect of the Dade County Courthouse), the Coliseum opened in 1927 with Will Rogers as host. Whereas city founder George Merrick envisioned a state-of-the art auditorium for Greater Miami, the venue saw various incarnations: a theater, an opera house, a graduate school for aviators during World War II, a wrestling and boxing arena, an ice-skating and roller rink, a bowling alley, and a health club.

By 1987 it was empty. In 1992, after squatters set it on fire, Service Merchandise proposed to build a new store on the site, and city commissioners agreed to demolish the old Coliseum. According to Gables preservation chief Ellen Uguccioni, the city's preservation board delayed the demolition for six months while a task force of local businessmen and concerned citizens got involved. The Coliseum could have been adapted for another use, Uguccioni says. "It takes a lot of imagination and incredible commitment, and the costs aren't necessarily up-front, so there are some risks," she explains.

In this case, the risks were too high to attract interest. "There are so many limitations to the amount of involvement government can have in private industry," observes Uguccioni. "Short of owning a property, we're just terribly constrained."

Dorn House (1910-1994)
Built on what is now Sunset Drive in unincorporated Dade, the Dorn House was a native pine structure and an excellent example of turn-of-the-century vernacular architecture. For those attributes, it received local historic designation in 1983. It was owned by the Dorn family for most of its life span but was allowed to deteriorate, and by the time automobile dealer Nat Potamkin bought the house and an adjoining property several years ago, the place was in deplorable condition. Metro condemned it. When Potamkin sought to demolish the structure, preservationists stepped in.

The city commission in nearby South Miami agreed to provide land for the house if someone else were to pay for its relocation, and Susan Redding, a South Miami insurance agent and preservation activist, spent a year and a half leading a campaign to raise money for the move. Although she got promises for $36,000, she was unable to save the house. "It got caught in a maze of bureaucratic requirements," Redding bitterly recalls. "What happened was so unnecessary, so totally unnecessary. It was really a political football until time just flat ran out.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
 
Loading...