55 SW Miami Avenue Road

A tale of Seminoles in canoes, little plastic men with parachutes, Connie Chung, a twenty-foot-tall high-heel shoe -- and Big Fish

He darts into the kitchen, his two-tone sandals and kaleidoscopic shirt a chromatic blur, and emerges with a camera. The object of his fascination: a freighter, which tilts precariously under a load of industrial steel tubing, used cars, and containers, heading to sea accompanied by two tugboats. "Look! Beautiful," he exclaims. "It's like a bride and those are two kids dancing around, the maids of honor. It's a very interesting performance."

The artist points to a cluster of garbage floating in the river. "Islands of pollution," he observes. "Incredibly interesting. For me the information on every can is a concept of what we are."

But what of the color selection? He begins to answer -- the blue is popular in the Mediterranean, he says -- but then he pauses. "There's not a deep philosophy," he offers, smiling. "It's colors I like to work with." As for the shoe, Miralda created the 22-foot-tall, 33-foot-long sculpture as part of a six-year public-art project celebrating the symbolic marriage of the Statue of Liberty to a giant statue of Christopher Columbus in Barcelona Harbor. Sans heel, the jumbo footwear doubles as a gondola. "It has a relation to the water, so Big Fish is perfect parking for the gondola shoe," Miralda explains. "Also, something about the big shoe, Big Fish. A situation of changing sizes. I'm interested in big things." (Miralda, incidentally, was the designer for the Miami Beach lifeguard stand shaped like a giant bed.)

The restaurant's aesthetic totally bewilders -- perhaps upsets would be a better word -- Marge Brickell. During the renovation she frequently stopped by to offer criticism. "Look at the fence!" she exclaimed two days before the opening. "It doesn't match!" Assessing the design of the dining room, she said, "Look at the color, the red. It's too harsh! And the blue! It would be so pretty if it were, you know, pale." (Brickell isn't about to be swayed by Miralda's reputation; she still hasn't learned his name and insists on calling him Miranda -- "Miralda, Miranda, what's the difference?")

In Miralda's opinion the restaurant is missing a final element: pictures and mementoes that evoke the Big Fish legacy. He kept the name in part because it helped maintain the "presence" of the establishment's old incarnation. (He downplays the obvious marketing benefits.) "I have respect for what it was, respect for the past and future, respect for the spirit and energy." He wants artifacts for the "information" they would provide, he says: "It's not the underwear of some rock star. It's a reference to the fact that you can't start from zero. I heard about the classical music, and all the signs on the wall, but I haven't gotten much information." (Historical sensitivity also led Miralda to add the word Mayaimi, the Tequesta Indians' original name for the region, which historians say means "sweet water" or "big water.")

A few months ago he asked Patricia Sykes if she would lend the restaurant some of Sykes's memorabilia. She was, by her own admission, icy. "I don't know them, they don't know my dad, so it can't be the same," she says. "It was a big thing to me: first losing my father, then to have this woman show up at my father's funeral and say she was going to reopen with Mrs. Brickell, then to find out Eric wasn't going to pay me, then to lock horns with Mrs. Brickell."

The truth is, no amount of redecoration, no extra layers of paint could possibly cover the past of 55 SW Miami Avenue Road: The spirits of the characters and events that have moved through this odd crossroads of Miami history have seeped into the very walls.

Ursula Schenone thinks she may have felt it. Not long ago she was about to rent a cottage in Spring Garden but balked at the last minute. Though she loved the place, she always experienced an unusual sensation there. "Behind the house I felt something, like a cold wind," Schenone recalls, clutching herself as if to ward off a chill. "I thought, Oh, it must be because I didn't eat lunch or something. But I felt it every time I went there." At about the same time, she says, she felt a similar coldness come over her on several occasions in the Big Fish kitchen.

Weeks after she decided not to rent the cottage, she learned that Thomas Orren Sykes had lived and died there.

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