Alfred Browning Parker was one of the most popular and most prolific architects in South Florida. During his 60-year career, launched in the 1940s and lasting until his death in 2011, Parker designed more than 500 structures, won awards and accolades from critics nationwide, and earned the respect of colleagues such as Frank Lloyd Wright. South Florida was once home to an estimated 1,000 Parker-designed buildings.
Today that number has dwindled to "less than 100 — maybe even less than 50," estimates Rudolph C. Henning, architect, author, and co-curator of HistoryMiami's upcoming exhibit, "The Discipline of Nature: Architect Alfred Browning Parker."
"He was probably the most well-known architect in South Florida, and unfortunately since his death in 2011, I think that's waned a bit," Henning says. "People in South Florida are always interested in the next, newest thing. There's a tendency to forget, with the transiency of its communities, about the tried-and-true pioneers."
In Miami's ever-expanding, ever-modernizing real-estate landscape, newer is better — and more valuable. Homes with historical significance are often remodeled to remove evidence of their age, such as low ceilings or cramped rooms. Other times, the homes are razed to make way for a trendier structure. Buildings designed by Parker are at a unique risk in this landscape; the attributes that made them famous decades ago, such as their small floor plans and use of ocean breezes instead of air conditioning, can lessen their value today.
"[Parker] had style, but he didn't do styles," Henning says. "He didn't do Mediterranean or Georgian or all that kind of stuff. He did a truly American, South Florida architecture."
Growing up in Miami from the age of 11, Parker developed an appreciation for his tropical surroundings. He studied architecture at the University of Florida and returned home with an idea that was, at the time, novel: to customize buildings to their surroundings, not the other way around.
"He tried to make his houses simple and straightforward," Henning says. "But they were complicated in a sense that there was this connection between the environment and the climate and the building." Much of Parker's early work had no air conditioning; instead, he studied the site of the house to determine how to create ideal climate conditions naturally. "He opened the house up and provided shelter and shade so you could get cool air and ocean breezes. He always oriented his houses correctly to the ocean's breeze.
"From day one, he was always trying to create symbiosis between the land and the built environment, so it didn't take away but add to it. Nowadays you have the green architecture bandwagon; Mr. Parker was all about that, and more than that, from the 1940s."
Parker was primarily a residential architect, but he also worked on some of Miami's noteworthiest landmarks. He designed the Miami Arena and the octogon-shaped building at Bayside Marketplace now housing the Hard Rock Café. (The building has since been remodeled, removing many of Parker's characteristic touches.) Hope Lutheran Church, on Bird Road west of the Biltmore, and St. Louis Catholic Church in Pinecrest are Parker designs, as is Coral Gables' George Washington Carver Middle School. He also contributed to the 1954 renovation of the Coconut Grove Playhouse.
But homes were where Parker really shone. His most famous designs were those he built for himself and his loved ones, such as his residence in Gables Estates, recognized in 1959 as a "Pacesetter" by House Beautiful magazine. The house he built for his mother, named Jewel in the Treetop, was another stunner: "It was a beautiful home, two pods, basically built amongst the banyan trees on a property that's right off Main Highway," Henning says. "It was just a gorgeous house, an award-winner, photographed for magazines."
But like so many other Parker projects, the Jewel won't last long. "Just recently, I discovered that it's basically a neglected ruin. You can't see the house even though it exists less than 100 feet off Main Highway," Henning explains. "It exists amongst the tropical trees and bushes and shrubs. It's basically taken over by the trees because it was abandoned by the last owner." Henning says that despite Parker's efforts to buy the house before his death, the property's current owners plan to demolish the home.
That's just the most recent in a long line of Parker homes to succumb to the demands of recent real-estate buyers. Daniel Ciraldo, preservation officer at the Miami Design Preservation League, says homes such as Parker's are at risk because of outdated zoning protections.
"Unfortunately, the [Miami Beach] city code currently only has a review process for homes built before 1942," he says. "We've been trying unsuccessfully to update the year to 1966." Parker opened his Miami architectural practice in 1946.
In 2013, a Parker home in Coral Gables was saved from destruction after a routine historical review; Gables rules require the destruction of any building older than 50 years to be approved by the city. But that's a rare win; that same year, the MDPL campaigned to save a Parker home at 412 W. Di Lido Dr. on the Venetian Islands but ultimately lost the battle.
"People can't live without air conditioning nowadays. They can't live with a one- or two-bedroom house; they want their four bedrooms, six baths," Hennings says wryly.
This Saturday would have been Parker's 100th birthday, and HistoryMiami has planned an exhibit celebrating the architect through photographs, drawings, artifacts, pieces of his houses, furniture Parker designed, architectural models of the homes, and other objects. "There's something for anybody's eyes who's interested in architecture, and in organic architecture," says Hennings, who co-curated the exhibit.
But soon the items on display at HistoryMiami might be all that remains of Parker's Miami legacy.
"The people who buy these houses, they don't care about the legacy, about the responsibility, that there's something beyond just the house and the material," Hennings says.
"The Discipline of Nature: Architect Alfred Browning Parker"
Opens Saturday, September 24, with a 6 p.m. reception and 7 p.m. conversation with the curators. On view through February 26, 2017. Tickets cost $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students, and $5 for children; children under 6 years old get in free. Visit historymiami.org.
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