Picture Old Florida

Watch your back for flying debris: Miami landmarks are falling fast. Witness the recent demolition of the 1899 house owned by Miami's first doctor, James Jackson (as in Jackson Memorial Hospital), ranked second on Dade Heritage Trust's list of the Ten Most Endangered Historic Sites just a short time ago. For every Freedom Tower rescued from the wrecking ball, it seems three other structures have bitten the dust. The capital of sun and fun, where youth and beauty are revered, harbors little respect for its elderly, especially its more mature buildings. Why hang on to the musty days of yore when they can be knocked down and quickly replaced with a bright shiny present?

Photography, the art of capturing not just a moment in time but a person or object just as they are at a certain interval, helps to recover some of that lost or buried history. That's one of the myriad reasons why photographer and ten-year Miami resident Irene Sperber was compelled to snap shots of a slew of downtown buildings. Driving around the city in search of the increasingly elusive parking space, Sperber saw things she didn't even realize existed. "Like a lot of people, I don't spend a lot of time downtown because it's like that big ugly creepy place," she says jokingly. But when Sperber got out of her car and walked about, she gained a renewed appreciation of her surroundings. "So many people don't really understand Miami and its background and think it's just a bunch of malls and condominiums, but it's really so much more than that."

Sperber's delicately hand-colored images do their part to alter erroneous perceptions. More than twenty of the photos currently are on display at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in an exhibition titled "Old Florida Landmarks." From Overtown to downtown, the buildings or sometimes just their architectural details -- a frieze here, an archway there -- gleam in the Miami sun. The refurbished Lyric Theater, built between 1910 and 1914, stands bold, proud as a beacon of hope in a blighted neighborhood. Constructed in 1925, the Mediterranean Revival-style Freedom Tower, with its tangerine-and- whipped-cream color scheme, leaps out from its ashy downtown background. Fiery orange, radiant yellow, and soothing turquoise emanate from the Moorish Revival-inspired ticket booth at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts. Menacing black griffins peer down from the roof and interrupt the clean elegant lines of the 1922 Scottish Rite Temple, which preceded the Art Deco movement.

Our city's celebrated ethnic eclecticism often seems reflected in its varied architecture. But in a climate where developers express little interest in reusing the past to their and the public's benefit, the words old, Florida, and landmarks together seem incongruous. Perhaps that lends resonance to Sperber's work, which clearly is more than just pretty pictures. "Architecture tells so much about the history of an area. It opens up a whole new door," she says. "South Florida is such a new environment that we really need to preserve what is here. It's exciting and interesting and so many people are unaware of it."

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Nina Korman
Contact: Nina Korman