By Michael E. Miller
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Sabrina Rodriguez
By Michael E. Miller
By Carlos Suarez De Jesus
By Luther Campbell
By Kyle Munzenrieder
The history of 55 SW Miami Avenue Road befits its singular location. In the past century it has been a gas station and a restaurant -- for a while it was both at the same time. It has been the scene of a burial and a stomping ground of Native Americans laden with coontie starch and egret plumes. For a piece of property that seems an afterthought, a leftover crumb of real estate, it has attracted some of Miami's more free-spirited souls.
Most people who know this part of the river were introduced to it by Thomas Orren Sykes, a plump, impish fellow who fancied socks dyed purple, cut-off overalls, and Connie Chung. Sykes -- commonly known as "Tommy" or "T.O." -- was proprietor of the Big Fish restaurant, an open-air dive at 55 SW Miami Avenue Road that, in its short life during the late Eighties and early Nineties, became something of a Miami institution.
An Ohioan by birth, Sykes moved with his wife and three daughters to Key Biscayne in the Fifties. After a divorce, he lived in a small guest cottage in the Spring Garden neighborhood, north of the river. He spent most of his life as a salesman for a pharmaceutical company. But in 1982, after his retirement, he took over a corner of a liquor store on Eighth Street and began serving up his soon-to-be-famous grouper sandwiches. About four years later he sublet half of Bud Dawson's service station at 55 SW Miami Avenue Road. The restaurateur converted one of Dawson Marine Service's mechanic's bays into a kitchen and jerrybuilt a lean-to roof with corrugated metal to create an outdoor terrace. Patricia Sykes, his youngest daughter, confides that her father made all these improvements without the proper permits.
Big Fish was T.O. Sykes's Monticello, an achingly faithful reflection of his character. He painted the freezer turquoise, the refrigerator purple. He fashioned tables out of barrels (also painted purple), topped them with circular planks of plywood, and called them "rooms," giving each a name -- the Connie Chung Room (he had a fierce crush on the newscaster), the Casey Room (after a dog who lolled about next door), the Fazenda Room (in honor of Louise Fazenda, a performer in Max Sennett's silent movies). The walls were bedecked with cards scrawled with aphorisms -- "Architecture: The art of how to waste space"; "May your future be filled with lawyers"; "If he can't say anything good about anybody, seat him next to me." And the music was as eclectic as the decor -- a Brandenburg Concerto one moment, Bob Marley the next, Shirley Temple seguing into the Gipsy Kings.
It all cost Sykes next to nothing. "He went about 'liberating' things," his daughter explains. "Liberating was one of his big words. Not stealing, liberating. You wouldn't believe what followed him home."
At the vortex of this frivolity and madness was Sykes himself. Seemingly discombobulated, he moved comfortably among the heterogeneous clientele -- longshoremen shoulder to shoulder with bankers, attorneys next to artists -- cracking jokes, singing along with the stereo, and nattering on to no one in particular. His social graces were all his own: Spotting a 60 Minutes correspondent taking a seat, he hustled over and exclaimed, "You're Bill Bradley!" And when several federal judges arrived to celebrate a colleague's birthday, he whipped out sparklers and had them tracing their names in the air and humming along with Bing Crosby. At its best Big Fish felt like a secret that everybody knew, but one that was still a secret. It was a club to which anyone could belong: The right to enter was granted merely because you were able to find the place.
Sykes's twilight-years absurdities were not an absolute surprise. On Key Biscayne he'd established himself as one of its more inventive characters, helping to found both the annual Fourth of July Parade and the volunteer fire department. Patricia Sykes, now 44 years old, remembers her father as never being quite like the others. "He taught us to toilet-paper houses the right way. How to ditch cars," she recalls admiringly. "Once I was out baby-sitting and he helped my friends toilet-paper our own house. He was so into capers. When the pope came to town, he spraypainted Anglican fish symbols down the middle of SE Fifth Street. He started at Brickell Avenue and painted a fish every two and a half feet 'cause he wanted the pope to come to Big Fish. Why Anglican fish? I don't know -- that was just Dad." The mission was all the more brazen in that it was conducted in the middle of the afternoon. "Everything I ever did with him was in broad daylight!" she exclaims. (Some of the Sykes graffiti legacy still remains: Look for the words Big Fish on the wall at the corner of SW First Avenue and SW Miami Avenue Road.)
There was a flip side to Sykes's prankishness and merriment. Patricia says that contrary to his gregarious public persona, her father was emotionally detached from his own children, an avoidance of intimacy she attributes in large part to his fondness for the bottle: After work he would retire to his cluttered shack of a home and drink himself to sleep. "He lived like a rat," she shudders. "There was a path from the front door to the bedroom that might have been eight inches wide. Stuff everywhere: His accordion, his tuba, books, newspapers, journals, Christmas gifts."
Sykes's history of alcoholism was no secret; he'd been hospitalized for the illness in the early Eighties and would tell people he started Big Fish to distract him from booze. According to Patricia, the drinking never really stopped (though she says he never drank on the job), and actually worsened as Sykes grew older. She struggled with how to handle the problem. Threats did no good, and she finally decided that she couldn't change his behavior. "I kind of looked the other way," she admits. "I'd get the maid in and dust around the bottles."
Despite Sykes's private addiction, the restaurant was profitable; by Patricia's estimate, in its prime Big Fish hauled in between $1000 and $1500 a day. Then Sykes began to run out of steam. Patricia speculates that his drinking and deep unresolved feelings about his divorce two decades earlier depressed him. "It was like his pilot light went out," she recalls. "I don't think he was very happy. But he made other people happy. He was a real Pagliacci." In the fall of 1992 Sykes sold the restaurant to his waiter and took a job at Shell Lumber. On February 6, 1995, he was found dead on the floor of his cottage. An autopsy report cited the cause of death as "hypertensive cardiomyopathy" -- a disease of the heart. In Sykes's case the term may have had a dual meaning: His doctor told the medical examiner that during an appointment two weeks before his death the patient had talked of suicide because "he was discouraged that he couldn't put his life back in order."
Two hundred people turned out for Sykes's funeral. After the service the mourners filed outside playing "Onward Christian Soldiers" on kazoos and later gathered at Big Fish, where the ashes were cast into the Miami River amid a hail of firecrackers and small plastic parachute men.
Another memory from that day is less joyful. At the funeral, Patricia recalls, she was approached by "this little, twenty-something woman" who said she was a friend of Marjorie "Marge" Brickell and her son Butch, owners of 55 SW Miami Avenue Road. "She said, 'We're going to run the restaurant now.' She was telling my sisters and me what she and Marge Brickell were going to do," recalls Patricia, who was then thinking about taking over the restaurant herself. "We were stunned that somebody would say something like that at that time."
The present-day Brickells can thank their maverick forebear Miami pioneer William Brickell for ownership of 55 SW Miami Avenue Road. Born in 1825 in Ohio (T.O. Sykes's home state), Brickell was an adventurer, partaking in the Gold Rush in California and then traveling on to Australia, where he met and married his second wife. Returning to Ohio, he made his fortune in the oil business. He scouted out the nascent settlement in Miami during a sailing expedition in 1870 with Ephrain Sturtevant (the father of Julia Tuttle), returned north, packed, and carted his wife, two daughters, a housekeeper, and a governess back down to the soggy, mosquito-ridden peninsula.
Brickell set up a trading post on the south bank of the Miami River near its mouth, exchanging manufactured clothing, guns, and whiskey with the Seminole Indians for egret plumes, alligator eggs, and coontie starch, a staple of the local diet. And he began to acquire land. According to historian Paul George, over the next two decades Brickell's holdings grew to stretch roughly from the mouth of the Miami River to as far inland as today's Little Havana, and south to the edge of Coconut Grove -- including what is now 55 SW Miami Avenue Road. In addition, the pioneer owned property near the Miami City Cemetery downtown as well as real estate in Fort Lauderdale. In 1925 the Brickell estate was assessed at $12 million.
Having staked out their turf on the south bank of the river, the Brickells kept largely to themselves, developing a reputation for being standoffish and cantankerous. "They had what you and I might call 'an attitude,'" comments George, an associate professor at Miami-Dade Community College. In his 1993 book The Miami River and Its Tributaries, Miami River historian Don Gaby writes: "George Parsons, an educated man who lived on the river near Brickell Point in the mid-1870s, described Mrs. Brickell as 'a vile woman' and Mr. Brickell as 'not really a man and who should be wearing woman's clothing (from how he behaved)' and 'mean and petty'. Others complained of daughter Alice Brickell's performance as postmistress, because she gave people their mail -- or didn't give them their mail -- depending upon how she felt that day!"
None of the daughters married, a fact that may have contributed to their increasingly eccentric behavior. Before her death in 1960, daughter Maude Brickell lived with about 60 dogs, most of them strays she'd taken in. A popular piece of folklore, related by Paul George, holds that the spinster also shared the now-demolished family mansion with "upward of 60 chickens" that freely ranged throughout the house. By most accounts, though, the Brickells maintained excellent relations with the Seminoles, who sometimes referred to William Brickell as "White Chief." The trading post was the most successful of the era, and the only one on the river to last into the Twentieth Century.
According to Don Gaby, an assortment of small businesses occupied the land just west of the present-day Miami Avenue Bridge during the early part of the century, including a machine shop, a boat-awning manufacturer, and at least two fish wholesalers. Next door, at the address now considered 55 SW Miami Avenue Road, a fruit-packing plant was in operation by 1910, then gave way in 1914 to a wholesale seafood firm called the Fish House, which remained open until 1921.
Records are scant for the next two decades, but by the late Forties a service station had opened on the site. The property continued to operate as a service and fueling station during the succeeding decades, changing hands at least twice. The most recent proprietor was Bud Dawson, the man who invited Sykes to relocate Big Fish. Several years ago Metro-Dade environmental regulators demanded that Dawson replace the gas pumps, citing concerns for the river. He decided there wasn't enough business to justify the cost. "Nobody could find the damn place," says Dawson, who was born and raised on the Miami River and is now retired and battling throat cancer. "We were at the end of the line. Who the hell can find SW Miami Avenue Road? If the damn thing caught on fire, the fire department couldn't find that spot."
He shut down the petroleum side of the business, effectively reducing the place to a convenience store. That closed for good in 1994.
"I wish I remembered what my husband told me, but I never cared about the past."
Marge Brickell is trying to recount what she knows about the history of the Brickell family and, specifically, the history of 55 SW Miami Avenue Road. "We were going to do shipping down there, I think," she ventures, then abruptly concludes, "Ask Butch," referring to her 39-year-old son. "He likes all that history stuff. I couldn't care less." ("My mother's probably better to ask on that sort of stuff," Butch will say later.)
On this particular morning Marge Brickell's concerns are more immediate than the dusty doings of family ancestors. Seated behind a large wooden desk in the office of Brickell Shipping, where NW Second Avenue meets the river, Brickell is in a tizzy. A motor home that presumably belongs to a movie-production crew using a Brickell Shipping warehouse for set construction is parked in the lot and she wants it moved. A small Haitian boat is unloading at the seawall. Workmen are repairing a roof. And the phone hasn't stopped ringing since she arrived at 9:00 a.m. sharp. Mostly they're calls from people looking for Marge's son Butch Brickell, who is home in bed, asleep.
And then there's the matter of the dogs. Four of them, to be exact. Two, strays Brickell hopes to find homes for, are sequestered in a storeroom off the office. One of them is in heat, a condition that isn't lost on Brickell's male German shepherd, who bounds apoplectically around the office trying to find a way in. His barking is incessant.
"Shut up!" cries the 76-year-old Brickell, though not unkindly. "Will ya shuddup? It's a three-ring circus here!"
This is her domain in the absence of Butch -- a frequent occurrence, because by Butch's own admission he'd prefer to be doing other things, like racing cars, boats, and all-terrain vehicles. Attesting to this passion are framed pictures of careening race cars, speedboats, and dune buggies, the most striking of which depicts a ball of fire bouncing off a retaining wall. The occasion was Butch Brickell's unsuccessful attempt to qualify for the Indy 200, an Indianapolis 500 preliminary held at Disney World in January; he and his car are in the middle of the flames. He fractured his neck in the accident. Marge points to another shot of a boat skimming the ocean. "He flipped over on that one going about 90 miles an hour," she says with barely concealed pride. This morning Butch is recovering from a late night spent either coordinating stunts for a Dennis Hopper film or carousing with a girlfriend -- his mother isn't sure which.
Marge isn't a Brickell by birth. A native of Long Island, as a girl she attended the now-defunct Miss Harris' Florida School on Brickell Avenue. Never a stellar student, she used to cut classes and sneak over to the racetracks to gamble. "I hated school," she says frankly. "Too slow!" She never went to college. "I'm not one for studying," she confesses. "My parents knew I wouldn't be good at it. Like I knew my son wouldn't be good at it." Butch never attended college either.
During her stays in Miami, Marge Odom met William Brickell, grandson of the man who established the trading post, and they married in 1947. They had one child, Butch, and traveled widely. Their life together was one of leisure, Marge says; she spent a lot of time on the Riviera Country Club golf course, where she became club champion. Recently she dropped the clubs and took up tennis, looking for a little excitement: "For 40 years I played golf and there was never a scandal. I went over to the tennis courts and everybody was talking about who was living with whom. Very exciting!"
Several years ago Butch inherited a sizable portion of the Brickell holdings -- or what was left of them: Over the years the family has sold off most of their turn-of-the-century purchases. Today Butch Brickell's property includes the Northern Trust Bank building on Brickell Avenue, several lots along the south side of the Miami River, and a couple of parcels on SW Eighth Street. He and his mother manage the properties. "My son runs the business," Marge clarifies, "but you know me -- I gotta butt in." (Butch, an easy-going man who speaks in a flat, near-mumble, puts it another way: "Oh, she does whatever she wants. I just kinda say screw it. I'm not gonna argue with her.")
Marge fills her days fretting over the business of the Brickell properties, particularly Brickell Shipping, where she rents dockage to small cargo vessels, leases office space, and rents out location space to film crews. Scenes from several feature films have been shot there, including True Lies ("They were here for six months," Brickell comments. "It was such a dumb movie") and The Specialist ("You know, Sly Stallone was in that one -- he's the most conceited man I've ever met; he's crude and rude").
In a short time Brickell has developed a reputation as something of an imperious, whimsical micromanager. Several former tenants and others who have done business with her were hesitant, or refused outright, to discuss her and her management style. "She's really hard to get along with," says Charles Berndt, Jr., who managed Dawson Marine for 25 years until it closed in 1994. "She came along and tried to take over the world." Berndt will not elaborate further.
Patricia Sykes had her own tussle with Marge Brickell; their rift marked the end of Big Fish. When Tommy Sykes retired in 1992, he sold the restaurant to his waiter. But shortly before he died, Sykes told Patricia that the waiter, Eric De Los Santos, hadn't paid him. He signed over to his daughter a promissory note that designated her the recipient of the assets, but she was never able to find a lease agreement or any formal documentation of ownership. "I think it was all done on a handshake," Patricia surmises.
Big Fish remained open for a few weeks after Sykes's death in February 1995, but the following month Brickell and De Los Santos got into a dispute: She says he owed her a lot of money. "I locked the bathroom doors!" she declares triumphantly. "My lawyer said, 'You can't do that.' I said, 'Like hell I can't.'" She also posted a sign that said "Reopening in May." Later that same day, Patricia got a call from a homeless man who used to camp out on the Big Fish property after dark; he reported that De Los Santos was vacating the premises with the microwave oven and the stereo system.
Sykes dashed over and took what she could, including two Connie Chung photos. Other items "went missing" during the evening as well, and the "reopening" sign got pulled down. The culprit? Sykes hunches her shoulders and raises her eyebrows in an exaggerated expression of ignorance. "Wind comes off the river pretty bad," she suggests.
At about midnight Sykes went back to pry off the Big Fish sign. She had successfully removed the G in BIG, and the I was dangling by a screw when Brickell pulled up. "It was ugly," Patricia recalls. "I said, 'I have every right to be here.' Not only had I lost my father but I lost everything he had worked hard to get. I got right in her face and shook my finger at her and said, 'How dare you, how dare you! You're going to take his equipment and his name and build on that!' And I walked away. She said, 'Don't you turn your back on me!' I kept going."
Patricia consulted a lawyer, who told her that Brickell's lien against De Los Santos superseded hers and there was nothing she could do. She gave up -- the struggle was tarnishing her father's legacy, she concluded. "The restaurant wasn't about work, it was about fun. I had to drop it." De Los Santos sued the Brickells in small-claims court for contract violation; the suit was settled out of court on undisclosed terms. De Los Santos, who never paid Sykes any money, died earlier this year.
This past April Marge Brickell finally returned two personal items that had belonged to Tommy Sykes: a series of mounted photographs showing Tommy and Patricia at Big Fish, and a plaque honoring Sykes for his role in founding the Key Biscayne Fourth of July Parade. For her part, Brickell accuses De Los Santos of making off with all of Sykes's other personal stuff. "I was trying to be helpful," she says.
Brickell says she never thought much of Big Fish anyway. "That little hole in the wall? I didn't care for any part of it. I thought it was terrible," she snorts. "We ate there every once in a while because Eric owed us so much money -- that horrible, repulsive little guy. It was the only way to get even."
Commuters crossing the Miami River near 55 SW Miami Avenue Road may recently have noticed the appearance of a mirror-speckled high-heel shoe, two stories tall, hoisted by a forklift into place next to the squat structure that used to house Dawson Marine Service, now painted blue and gray and covered with silver tiles resembling fish scales. The exterior of Sykes's old Big Fish kitchen, once painted white, has been dipped in a shade of green. The entire site is now bordered by a row of stacked tires, alternately painted black and white, linked by a black-and-white picket fence. At night the whole setup is bathed in soft spotlights, giving it a carnival glow.
Say Ahola! to Antoni Miralda.
This is the most recent installation (in a sense) of the internationally renowned Spanish artist. It's actually a restaurant. It's called Big Fish Mayaimi.
Miralda, age 54, and his 50-year-old partner Montse Guillen had been looking for a space to open a restaurant when she floated past the site earlier this year and saw a For Rent sign. She immediately faxed Miralda, who was in Barcelona. The two weren't strangers to the restaurant business; they were responsible for the transformation of an upscale Italian eatery (and onetime Polish deli) into the hip El Internacional restaurant in Manhattan.
The couple contacted Ursula Schenone, who had expressed interest in financing a restaurant if they chose to open one here. Schenone, a former sous chef at several South Beach restaurants (her parents own the Tutto Pasta restaurant south of downtown), was living in Antigua at the time. She flew back to Miami expecting to close a deal on a lease and get to work. But she had yet to meet the formidable Mrs. Brickell.
The 30-year-old Schenone has little to say about the ensuing negotiations, except that before long she was on a plane back to Antigua, frustrated. According to Brickell, there had been some discussion about her becoming a partner in the venture. "Ursula and I were going to go in together," Brickell says. "But she seemed very temperamental. I got out of there when I realized I couldn't be in control. I like to be in control."
After more months of negotiations between Miralda and Guillen and Brickell, Schenone returned, the restaurateurs accepted the landlady's offer of a two-and-a-half-year lease, and in late summer they set about creating their restaurant. Schenone is resigned about the short lease: "Everybody's tight with their own things," she concludes matter-of-factly.
Brickell says she doesn't want to be tied to a long-term project just yet: The river, she notes, is a dynamic place. And indeed, the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and City of Miami planners are teeming with optimistic visions (which they don't hesitate to impart to anyone who will listen) of a fully revamped riverfront bustling with fish markets, a microbrewery, a folklife center in Lummus Park, and cafes and restaurants galore. The Brickells think they may be able to cash in on this renaissance. The DDA has even approached them about the possibility of re-creating the old Brickell trading post, either at Brickell Shipping or where Big Fish now stands.
Schenone, the sole source of financing, has sunk $60,000 into the project, not to mention most of her waking seconds during the past few months. "In life you have to take some risks. This is very passionate," she explains. "People who are sensitive, they are going to start feeling everything here: the water, the colors. I have faith in the people. I have faith in my food. I have faith in the river."
The menu is simple, featuring Mediterranean-style seafood. They've also got their own Big Fish sandwich. But Miralda says his restaurant isn't simply about the consumption of food. "The restaurant should be a place for meditating, for thinking," he beams. "Eating is only a part of it." A thin, energetic man with an angular face and long gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, he sits on a bench outside the kitchen trying to articulate his vision. This would appear to be a slightly uncomfortable undertaking; Miralda gropes around in a language that isn't his own, often substituting body movements for words that escape him.
The eclectic, jarring color selection and decor, he explains, are all derived from what he describes as "the choreography of the river." He makes a broad sweeping motion with his arm that encompasses the murky water, a rusted freighter docked on the opposite bank, workmen building a seawall, cars rumbling over the Miami Avenue Bridge, the backdrop of the skyscrapers and other buildings. "This is one of the views of Miami that is totally true," he goes on. "The river is alive. I think there is --" Miralda's bushy eyebrows leap upward and his hands flutter -- "an energy. The situation of the place is a cross-movement, boats and cars, a lot of dialogue."
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.