Ambition and failure: Interama and Elton Gissendanner

Interama's centerpiece was to be this ultra-fab thousand-foot tower, accessible only by a movable-walkway through an underwater tunnel.
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It was one of the most ambitious undertakings in the history of Florida government, and it ended up as a few dozen weathered blueprints hanging on a museum wall. Initially aimed for a ground-breaking in the '60s, the project known as Interama was to be a permanent fair of the Americas- a mammoth, gaudily-designed celebration of Miami's emerging role as the nation's entryway to South America.

The plans intermittently simmered, boiled, and cooled for about 25 years. The construction plans were outlandish, calling for a 1,000-foot "Tower of Freedom" on an island, accessible by then state-of-the-art people movers in an underwater tunnel; a floating ampitheater with seating for 12,000; a symphony hall; an opera theater, a computerized audio-visual library; and other ideas too numerous to list here, all conceptualized in Jetsons-style futuristic design.

It certainly would have been an eyesore by today's standards. But, in fact, it was never built. Nobody would pick up the tab.

Come survey our state's greatest failure- and we mean "greatest" in both ways, because it seems we dodged an architectural bullet- at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida (101 W. Flagler St., 305.375.1492)

Through January 25th, the museum is displaying an exhibit on Interama titled "Miami and the Pan-American Dream." They've laid out the blueprints in chronological order circling a room. You can see how the plan evolved, de-volved, swelled and then stalled, pretty much in that order. The plans are so unabashedly grand- and unrealistic- that you get the same sort of red-faced feeling you might have viewing film of a teenager's ambitious bedroom fantasies involving Pamela Anderson.

Even though Interama never came to fruition, the exhibit tells a lot about the mentality of that period in Miami, a time when the US was first realizing they could do business with South America- and our city had the location to reap the benefits.

But what really brought Riptide to the museum was the exhibit's coverage of Interama's twilight years- specifically, 1970 through 1975, when its chairman was Elton Gissendanner. In the upcoming issue, we'll publish a feature story on that man, an enormously complex figure that seemed to be everywhere at once in Florida politics from the '60s through the '80s. Besides the Interama directorship, the lifelong veterinarian was mayor of North Miami, a State House Representative, and head of Florida's top environmental agency, the Department of Natural Resources.

And then, in the late '80s, he went to prison, felled by a felony conviction for aiding a big-time pot-smuggler. And now, at 80-years old, he's trying to recover from the twenty-year hiatus, running for a House seat in the district of the town in which he now lives, Lake Placid.

Gissendanner's task with Interama was pretty much akin to that of the nurse that gently guides a geriatric patient into death. But reading, in the exhibit's book of news clippings, his stubbornly optimistic quotes during those last five years of the project- even as taxpayers, reporters, and politicians bailed on Interama in droves- you gain an understanding of what type of person Gissendanner is. He will stubbornly deny all reason before throwing dirt on a grave.

You might argue he's now doing the same thing with his political career. Check out "Redemption Run" in Wednesday's issue. If you're into it, you'll like the Historical Museum's exhibit as well.

-Gus Garcia-Roberts

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