This past January, the National Trust for Historic Preservation designated Little Havana as a National Treasure, only two years after the trust included the neighborhood in its list "11 Most Endangered Places." The National Trust, along with Partners in Preservation and Main Street America, implemented a “Vote Your Main Street” campaign that lets the public decide which historic sites in 25 cities should receive part of $2 million in preservation funding from sponsor American Express.
The Manuel Artime Theater, the campaign's only historic site in Florida, is in the running for votes to refurbish its exterior. The project will cost $150,000, according to theater manager Yunior Santana.
The yellow building on the corner of SW First Street and SW Ninth Avenue was once the Riverside Baptist Church, a place of worship and community gathering for many white Americans in what was once a segregated neighborhood. Built in 1921, the modest structure in 1955 was expanded with a new façade boasting a modified Georgian style and a towering steeple.
The church and other ancillary buildings went up for sale in 1970 after the congregation moved to Kendall during Dade County’s suburban expansion boom. By then, the neighborhood’s character had shifted dramatically: The arrival of exiles from the 1959 Cuban revolution gave birth to Little Havana.
The City of Miami bought the 2.34-acre site in 1975 and renamed it in 1982 in recognition of Manuel Artime Buesa, the anti-revolutionary hero of Cuban Brigade 2506 who led the Bay of Pigs Invasion in 1961.
Since its conversion from a church to a 900-seat performance venue and community center, the Manuel Artime Theater has hosted many locally popular Latin artists and helped many nonprofits, schools, and grassroots organizations stage events.
A '90s program book ad for the theater boasts "our 60' x 30' stage, the longest one in Dade County, for a theater our size," which afforded ample room for symphony, opera, and ballet presentations. The theater, it says, also accommodated chamber recitals and a variety of its neighbors' needs — from civic meetings to weddings — and even Gloria Estefan and Miami Sound Machine, who filmed a Pepsi commercial to the tune of the single “Seal Your Fate” there in 1991.
In 2003, the theater opened its doors to the big screen. The Farrelly brothers' comedy Stuck on You, starring Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear, built a film set on the venue's stage. More recently, this past June, President Donald Trump visited the theater to announce a policy cracking down on travel and trade with Cuba; hundreds of protesters and supporters clashed on the streets outside the building.
Although the theater is off the beaten path of Little Havana's famous Calle Ocho, its preservation fits with the trust’s mission to help Little Havana maintain its National Treasure status. Arguably, all of Little Havana — from Shenandoah to the south and Riverside to the north — captures the spirit of a history worth preserving as gentrification encroaches on the community.
The National Trust's website explains why Little Havana is endangered: “Despite Little Havana’s significant place in our national story, the neighborhood currently faces a range of threats, including development pressure, demolition of historic buildings, displacement of existing residents, and zoning changes that could impact its affordability, cultural richness, and character."
The trust aims to preserve Little Havana’s unique character and is working with the City of Miami, Dade Heritage Trust, PlusUrbia Design, and Live Healthy Little Havana to accomplish that goal.
Santana says the theater continues to serve the community’s cultural and social needs, and even rents office space to nonprofits in its adjacent building. He has additional plans for honoring the building’s history within the context of Little Havana that go beyond the scope of capital improvements to the façade, which include restoring its original 1950s gray color and adding a new marquee.
“I’m also talking to survivors of the Cuban Brigade to create lobby exhibits,” he says. “I’d love to make it a place where visitors can come and see all the history.”
The “Vote Your Main Street” campaign is hosted by National Geographic and runs through October 31. You can help by voting up to five times daily at Vote Your Main Street.