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A Historic Struggle PDF Print E-mail
Written by Gaspar González - BT Contributor   
January 2013

The fight to preserve the Miami Herald building shows we're taking our past more seriously

IPix_CultFollowing_1-13t’s not every day you see a prominent architect go World Wrestling Federation on the executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust, the way Arquitectonica founder Bernardo Fort-Brescia did with Becky Roper Matkov, waving a threatening finger in her face and giving enough of an appearance of becoming unhinged that he reportedly had to be pulled away.

The occasion? The City of Miami Preservation Board meeting on December 10, held to decide whether to grant the 50-year-old Miami Herald building historic designation and, quite possibly, derail the Genting Group’s plans for a residential/commercial complex on the bayfront property. The board ultimately voted 5-3 against the designation. (Arquitectonica will develop plans for Genting.)

Regardless of where one might have stood on the issue, it’s hard to deny the fight over the Herald building revealed two truths about us.

The first is, we still lack a certain sophistication when it comes to discussing the historical significance of our signature buildings. Cries raised by bloggers, pundits, and others that the Herald building is “ugly” completely missed the point.

Ugly, like its opposite, is largely a matter of opinion. I was good friends with a late, renowned Cuban architect. A modernist to his bones -- one of the island’s first -- he detested Mediterranean Revival architecture, and never tired of saying so. If it had been up to him, he well might have opted to preserve the Herald building -- with its distinctive yellow mosaic tiles, sun-grille window coverings, dramatic accordion-style facing, and exuberant jet-age port cochere -- over, say, Vizcaya.

Another consideration that appears to have gotten short shrift in the debate is how integral the Herald building was to the identity of the newspaper, and the city. In the era before 24-hour cable news channels and the Internet, newspapers loomed large in the public imagination. They were authoritative -- important -- and, by extension, so were the buildings that housed them.

In the case of the Herald, that sense of importance was conveyed not only by the building’s design, but by its placement in the heart of town; sitting on the bay, with views of downtown in one direction and of Miami Beach in the other, the building was the physical manifestation of the paper’s prominence in the community.

(As if to make the point, Herald stationery for years featured a rendering of One Herald Plaza. On envelopes, the structure occupied the upper-left hand corner, just above the return address. On the actual correspondence, a full-color reproduction dominated the top of the page. I know, because I have one of those letters.)

So the conversation surrounding the building’s historic designation could have been smarter. (What else is new?) The good news, and the other truth revealed by the episode, is that we’re taking our local history much more seriously.

To be sure, this hasn’t always been the case. My own experiences are telling. In 2007, I made a documentary on Muhammad Ali’s years in Miami. When it premiered in South Florida, I couldn’t believe how many people told me they had never heard of the Fifth Street Gym (so named because it was located on Fifth Street in South Beach). This, despite the gym having been a home to countless boxing champions -- among them, Ali, who arrived as Cassius Clay in 1960 -- a gathering spot for celebrities like Frank Sinatra and, on one memorable occasion, the Beatles, who dropped in to have their photo taken with The Greatest.

But it was usually their follow-up question that most got to me: “Is it still there?” No, I had to tell them, it had been torn down in the early 1990s to make way for a parking lot. How can that be? they wanted to know. In reality, they had answered their own question: Because so few people had even known about it or, seemingly, cared.

By contrast, in recent years both the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels -- Morris Lapidus’s dual gems -- have undergone respectful renovations, the magnificent Bacardi buildings have been successfully repurposed, and grassroots efforts to save Miami Marine Stadium have taken hold.

And even in cases where famed structures have come down in favor of new development, there have been gestures to commemorate what had previously stood; two obvious examples being the incorporation of the Art Deco Sears store tower into the design of the Adrienne Arsht Center and the installation outside Marlins Park by the artist Daniel Arsham, in which the massive letters of the Orange Bowl sign were randomly arranged on the sidewalk, half-submerged, as if to suggest they simply fell there when the old stadium was demolished.

The Herald building was never that beloved, and the preservation board’s denial of historic status wasn’t without foundation. Just the same, I suspect many of us, someday soon, will glance over to where the big yellow box used to be, and miss seeing it.

 

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