San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge. St. Louis has the Arch. Las Vegas has its retro welcome sign. It seems like every city has an iconic structure to represent itself to the rest of the world. Every city but Miami, that is. The Magic City is full of architectural gems, and maybe that's why no one building has come to define it. But that's left this town without a symbol of its own. In our Miami Icons series, we're aiming to fix that. Today, New Times art critic Carlos Suarez de Jesus examines the urban legends of El Faraon.
The coral rock house hugging the fringes of Little Havana is one of Miami's oddest structures, and gives the strange impression of being out of place and time.
It sits on the corner of Northwest 22nd Avenue and Seventh Street, posing a stark contrast against a bland office building across the street and a gloomy collection of strip malls nearby. The squat, fortress-like "casa de piedra," as it is known to older Cubans, has become both a thorny symbol of el exilio and the inspiration for one of our city's most enduring urban myths. That's because Fidel Castro allegedly slept there during a visit to Miami in 1955.
Today the coral building houses El Faraon Dollar Discount and Minimarket, which caters mostly to locals searching for a cheap pack of cigarettes, sundry goods, or prepaid international calling cards. Inside, tightly packed shelves offer everything from generic laundry detergents, to tinned beans and tuna, to assorted pots and pans. There's even a barrel bristling with brightly hued brooms and mops, artfully arranged to greet customers at the door.
Atop the building's façade, overlooking NW Seventh Street, a bulky, golden bust of an Egyptian pharaoh scowls down on the traffic and pedestrians whizzing by.
On the adjacent corner sits La Canastilla Cubana, the one-stop baby store famous for its bassinets called a "Moises," or Moses, named after the Biblical figure who forced an Egyptian tyrant to flee the slaves.
Even now, when older Cubans pass the joint, they often remark, 'That's where Fidel stayed when he came to town.'
"It's ironic the store is called El Faraon---which translates to Pharaoh---since that's where Fidel is supposed to have once stayed," observes Jaime Suchlicki, director of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami. "But I'm not sure if that is part of an urban legend or not," he adds.
Back when the house was built in the late 1910s, it was the only structure in that part of Miami, says local historian Paul George, who works at HistoryMiami in Downtown. The rest of the area was either underdeveloped or farmland.
"It was built by a fellow named John D. McKenzie, who was an early pioneer and happened to be a stone mason," George explains. "He used oolitic limestone to create the structure, not coral, and used it as a farm. It is the oldest house west of where the Orange Bowl once stood, which was underdeveloped until after World War II when the area experienced explosive growth."
George agrees that revolutionary conspiracy theories have crept into the veneer of the old South Florida homestead. "The 'Fidel slept here' story is a myth that has been perpetuated through the years and is the type of urban legend that adds to the area, making our city a more colorful place," the Miami historian says.
But don't tell Luis Conte Agüero that Castro's presence at casa de piedra is a sham. In fact, Conte Agüero, a well-known figure in Miami's exile community and former friend and now Castro enemy, says he was there with Fidel when he visited Miami in November of 1955.
"Fidel was in Miami to raise funds for his insurrection at a public event on November 20, 1955, held at the now defunct Flagler Theater," says Conte Agüero recollects. "Fidel was skittish about appearing on the dais alone, so he invited journalist Guido Garcia Inclan and me to come from Cuba to rally for his cause. At the time I was a political and social commentator for Cuba's CMQ Television and Radio Progreso, the island's national chain.
"The next day Fidel met privately with several supporters at the coral house in Little Havana -- where one of his close friends lived then -- and we met with people friendly to the cause of toppling Fulgencio Batista from power back then," adds the 90 year-old Conte Agüero, known for his booming baritone pipes and who currently serves as president of the Cuban Orthodox Party in Exile.
"Look, it is true that Fidel never slept in that house. But I can firmly avow that he was in the house for several hours because I was there. Fidel has always been un guatacon (ass kisser) and fawned over anyone he thought could further his cause. I remember distinctly that when we got up to leave he grabbed my briefcase in front of everybody and offered to walk me to the car," Conte Agüero says. "Fidel was always comiendo mierda in that way."
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