Architecture & Design

The Eight Oldest and Most Iconic Buildings in Miami

Think of your favorite city, and an old iconic structure probably comes to mind. There's the Empire State Building in New York, the White House in D.C., the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

Because Miami is one of the most culturally diverse cities in America, it's hard to nail down just one building to define it. That's why we gathered eight historical sites that, as Will Smith puts it, say, "Welcome to Miami" — or ¡Bienvenidos a Miami! — best.

8. The Standard Spa
In the early 1950s, the Standard was known as the Monterrey Motel, and in the '60s, it became the Lido Spa Hotel. It attracted the hippest residents and tourists and boasted a swank nightclub that added to Miami's growing club scene. The Standard took control of the Lido in 2004 and reopened in 2006. And though the space has changed throughout the years, HistoryMiami's Paul George says the Standard "remains one of the most wonderful, funky hotels today."
7. William Wagner House
The oldest home standing in Miami-Dade County, the William Wagner house is believed to have been built in the mid-1850s, representing Miami's homesteading era. Wagner was one of the city's first permanent residents, actively involved in political and community affairs. He was also responsible for establishing the city's first Catholic church in 1875. In 1979, the building was relocated to Miami's Lummus Park, and today the structure is the only known house remaining from the city's antebellum era. 
6. Miami-Dade County Courthouse
It's difficult to imagine the Magic City before the dozens of skyscrapers that dot the skyline. In 1904, the Miami-Dade County Courthouse was the tallest structure in the county — as well as the tallest building south of Baltimore. Two decades later, in 1925, a new building was erected in the same location to accommodate Miami's growing population. The 27-story structure was designed by Atlanta architect A. Ten Eyck Brown, who designed many courthouses throughout the South. The tower also housed the city's jail until it closed in 1961. Today the building is still used as the main civil courthouse for the county.
5. The Tower Theater 
In the early 1920s, the Tower Theater was the place to catch an evening flick. One of the first and finest theaters in the South during its time, the Tower Theater is one of Miami's oldest cultural landmarks. In the early 1960s, when many Cuban refugees fled to the States, the theater served as a first look at modern American culture. With the influx of Cuban-Americans, the theater added English-language films with Spanish subtitles and later Spanish-language films. The theater closed to the public in 1984, and in 2002, the City of Miami gave Miami Dade College rights to manage Tower's theater operations. Now the space hosts cultural performances, educational talks, and English- and Spanish-language films.
4. Miami River Inn
A cluster of pastel wood-frame houses built in 1908 is considered to be Miami's longest continuously operated hotel. Situated in one of the city's oldest neighborhoods, the structures have stood in East Little Havana for more than a century. Originally built as a Victorian boarding house, the property has recently been restored and is now occupied by Roam, a co-living space.
3. The Freedom Tower
Walk through downtown Miami any given day, and the Freedom Tower is hard to miss. The 17-story vintage yellow building, which is illuminated in various colors at night, was built in 1925 during a real-estate bubble. In the 1960s, it served as a safe haven for Cuban refugees to seek assistance. The building was named the Freedom Tower because of the many Cubans who shuffled through the it in a span of about ten years. Now the space is known for hosting local arts and culture because it houses Miami Dade College's Museum of Art + Design and offices for the Miami International Film Festival.
2. The Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center
The Olympia Theater celebrated its 90th birthday this year. The space looks to have many more years ahead of it. The theater was built in 1926 by Paramount, giving the Olympia an immediate connection to the film industry. "John Eberson, who designed it, built the theater to accommodate vaudeville as well as film — so live entertainment has been with us since the beginning as well,” Robert Geitner, executive director of the Olympia Theater, told New Times in February. Throughout the year, the downtown Miami space offers specialty screenings, premieres, and its Recent Cinema From Spain film series; it's also one of the hosts of the Miami International Film Festival. There are concerts and live entertainment as well, with musicians such as Kraftwerk, Jesus & Mary Chain, Sufjan Stevens, and Damien Rice having performed on its stage in the past year.
1. The Biltmore Hotel 
In the early '20s and '30s, the Biltmore Hotel was frequented by celebrities, socialites, royalty, and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Glitz and glamour aside, the Coral Gables building has a spooky past thanks to the murder of gangster Thomas "Fatty" Walsh and the temporary repurposing of the Biltmore as a military hospital during World War II. Despite its rumored ghosts, the hotel is still one of the most sought-after destinations in South Florida. Every Sunday, the hotel's lavish courtyard hosts one of the finest brunch soirees in town. But if creepy stories are your thing, the Biltmore offers walking tours that touch on its mysterious past. 
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Clarissa Buch Zilberman is a writer and editor, with her work appearing in print and digital titles worldwide.
Contact: Clarissa Buch