Is the Herald Building Historic? A center for a better downtown development that is not a Destination Casino? Should We Consider it And Work together to design a better space?

The Miami Herald building’s window grids for hurricane protection. PETER ANDREW BOSCH / MIAMI HERALD STAFF

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BY FABIOLA SANTIAGO
FSANTIAGO@MIAMIHERALD.COM
These walls around me can talk and they have a heck of a story to tell — our history, Miami’s history.

When it comes to making the case for the historic preservation of The Miami Herald building, it doesn’t matter whether you like or hate the newspaper, or whether you like or dislike the look of the Miami Modern architecture of the building.

It also shouldn’t matter whether you’re in favor of or against the plan of the Malaysian company, Genting, to turn the 13.9-acre property into a mega-casino gambling resort. As revolting as that possibility strikes me on so many levels, it hits especially hard because of the watchdog role the newspaper has played in the city’s history.

But what makes a building worthy of historic preservation is decided by a set of established criteria, not opinions, and The Herald building meets every requirement set forth by the Miami City Charter, says Becky Roper Matkov, chief executive of the Dade Heritage Trust and the preservationist leading the charge to gain historic designation for the waterfront Herald building.

“The Herald has been an incredibly historic force in this community for decades, and this building has been a huge influence in the community,” Roper Matkov says.

The fact that The Miami Herald’s parent company, McClatchy, sold the building to Genting for $236 million last year should not be a factor in determining historic designation, Matkov says.

The building is an iconic example of mid-century Miami Modern architecture, MiMo for short, as is the Bacardi Building on Biscayne Boulevard and the Miami Marine Stadium in Virginia Key, two structures that have already been granted historic designation and protection.

Ground was broken on Aug. 19, 1960, for the $30 million Miami Herald plant. At the time it was completed in 1963, it was the largest building in Florida.

Open house on April 7, 1963, brought 10,000 people to “gape in wonder at the expensive equipment and the immense space occupied by various departments in a splendid modern setting,” retired Herald writer Nixon Smiley wrote in his 1974 book Knights of the Fourth Estate: The Story of The Miami Herald.

The Herald’s six-story building stands in an arts district where other nearby structures such as the Sears Towers and The Boulevard Shops have already received historic designation, and thus are protected from being torn down.

Yet, at least on the surface, when it comes to the fate of the unmistakable yellow-colored building flanking the bayfront between the Venetian and MacArthur causeways, sometimes it seems that few Miamians care.

In a recent survey of Miami-Dade voters commissioned by The Herald and its media partners, 52 percent of those polled opposed historic designation for the Herald building. Another 13 percent had no opinion.

Granted, the topic of architectural details is not a sexy or life-or-death issue. But surprisingly, when The Herald’s management announced plans this week to relocate in May 2013 to the former Southern Command headquarters in Doral, that became one of the day’s best-read and most-shared stories on social media sites.

Like it or hate it, Miamians do care what happens to their newspaper of record, but in a city as young as ours, there’s little understanding about the value of historic preservation.

People with bigger priorities don’t understand why preservation of iconic old buildings is important and how the protection a historic designation confers on a building that tells a story about our history contributes to the future.

But Miami, incorporated in 1896 and one of the youngest cities in the United States, is at a crossroads. Issues such as this will shape the fortunes of future generations who will care or not care about this city, depending on the values we pass on.

If we don’t leave our children and grandchildren our history represented in buildings that tell our story — the Freedom Tower, the Lyric Theater, the Fontainebleau Hotel, The Miami Herald — what kind of citizens will they become?

Like grandparents, old buildings are repositories of lessons, identity and stories that reveal who we are and how we got to be here.

“If you think of all the places that make Miami interesting to visit, all of them required someone to stand up and say, ‘This is worth preserving or restoring,’ and almost everyone else thought it was a nutty idea at the time,” Roper Matkov says. “It just takes a little vision to see how important something from the past can be and how it can be translated into an important landmark for the future.”

The political and economic environment, however, may not be favorable to the historic designation. Necessary documents to supplement the case, such as the building’s original plans, Roper Matkov says, are “missing” or hard to come by. Genting is against the historic designation and is not cooperating with the sharing of deed documents that are now in their possession as the building’s new owners.

But predictable shenanigans like that shouldn’t be a factor. The city charter outlines the criteria for historic designation, which The Herald building clearly meets:

The building is “associated in a significant way with the life of a person important in the past.” The company’s late founders, brothers John S. and James L. Knight, were key players in Miami’s development and in hemispheric affairs, and perhaps more importantly, continue to contribute posthumously through a foundation in their name that every year funds multimillion dollar community projects in the fields of the arts, education and journalism.

Likewise, Alvah H. Chapman Jr., the former president and CEO of The Herald and chairman of the previous parent company, Knight Ridder, was a key player in community affairs, and his influence is well-documented. He was the strongest voice of all, ironically, against casino gambling in Florida.

Without question, The Herald has been the “site of a historic event with significant effect upon the community, city, state or nation,” from dignitaries worldwide coming to discuss international issues with the editorial board to the tragic suicide of Miami-Dade Commissioner Arthur E. Teele Jr., who shot himself to death in the newspaper’s lobby in 2005.

The newspaper’s work in defining issues like immigration, racial relations, and growth during the last 50 years fulfills the charter’s requirement that the building under consideration represent “the historical, cultural, political, economical, or social trends of the community.”

Whether one likes the style or not, it’s “an outstanding work of a prominent designer or builder,” architect Sigurd Naess, who designed the Sun-Times building in Chicago, and the structure contains “elements of design, detail, materials, craftsmanship of outstanding quality or which represent a significant innovation or adaptation to the South Florida environment [like the unique cascade of shutters for hurricanes]; or have yielded, or maybe likely to yield, information important in prehistory or history.” Those are the requirements for historic designation, which The Herald building, with its stately lobby of steel and marble, meets. It isn’t a judgment that comes from a sentiment of nostalgia for the past, but from documented history and architectural facts.

I am not without bias. On the front lines for the last 32 years, I’ve been part of the reporting and writing of stories that become the first draft of history, the extraordinary and the tragic, and the ordinary daily events that make up a community’s fabric. And as many other Miamians, I’ve witnessed the newspaper’s influence on South Florida, mostly for good, sometimes for worse, but that’s history, imperfect and educational.

These walls around me can talk and they have a heck of a story to tell — our history, Miami’s history.

Save them.

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