Posted on Sat, Oct. 20, 2012
Bid to make Miami Herald building historic seeks to change public views
BY ANDRES VIGLUCCI
For just a few months shy of 50 years, The Miami Herald’s hulking, block-long headquarters has occupied — some critics say marred — a prime spot on Biscayne Bay, a muscular symbol in marble, concrete, glass and steel of the newspaper’s and its leaders’ once-outsized clout in local affairs.
But is that commanding presence, the distinct tropical-meets-Modernist architecture, and the institution’s role in shaping Miami’s history significant enough to save the building from the wrecking ball as the newspaper itself decamps for suburban Doral?
That’s the ticklish question that will confront the city’s historic preservation board on Monday, when it considers an application by a leading preservation group, Dade Heritage Trust, to have The Herald building declared historic.
The designation would bar its demolition by its new owners, the giant Malaysian casino operator Genting, which wants to build a massive gambling resort on the 10-acre site now occupied by the newspaper building and a series of parking lots. Although designation by itself does nothing to stop a casino on the site — it only requires that the building’s exterior be preserved — Genting is strenuously opposing the petition.
The designation effort is shaping up as a familiar clash between business interests who want the building gone and belittle its value, and architects, historians and preservationists trying to save pieces of the history of a city best known for tearing that history down. But that effort comes with a twist: The building in question is a very large, and not universally beloved, example of a mid-20th Century style of Miami architecture that until recently enjoyed little popular favor.
The debate comes within a larger context. Preservationists across the country have increasingly turned their attention to saving endangered Modernist buildings that many people have trouble conceiving of as historically or architecturally valuable. In Miami, that new focus has led to the succesful designation as historic of the Miami Marine Stadium, the Bacardi Building and the row of funky 1950s motels along Biscayne Boulevard, and on Miami Beach to the preservation and renovation of iconic hotels like the Fontainebleau and Eden Roc — all of them rebaptized as Miami Modern, or MiMo, architecture.
Now Genting’s purchase of The Herald building, to some an equally significant MiMo monument, is forcing an overdue reevaluation of its architectural merits and its place in Miami-Dade County history, the Dade Heritage Trust and its supporters say.
They argue few other buildings in Miami embody so much history: Not just as an architecturally distinct example of the style of the day, but also as a marker of the role of the free press and the newspaper’s particular influence in the civic life and history of Miami, as well as the city’s explosive development in the last half of the 20th century.
They also note the building served as a base for owners John S. and James L. Knight, who helped revolutionize the newspaper industry, in part through their commissioning of The Herald’s then-technologically advanced headquarters, as well as longtime executive Alvah Chapman, one of the city’s key civic leaders for more than three decades. Chapman helped create the county’s extensive homeless-assistance system and guided the rebuilding of South Miami-Dade after Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Chapman’s widow, Betty, is supporting designation.
“The Herald building is truly so important, more so than I ever imagined, the more I have read about the history and studied the architecture,’’ said Dade Heritage Trust CEO Becky Roper Matkov, who said she initially saw little of distinction in the building until her eyes were opened during a tour led by fans of the style.
“It’s really a wonderfully exciting building that we have taken for granted all these years,” she said. “Like so much of architecture, when we start focusing on it we start appreciating it. We just can’t allow the 50 years of history that it embodies to be just wiped away. This is too important a Miami landmark to let go.’’
The petition could put the city in an awkward spot. Genting, which paid $236 million for the property, argues that its as-yet-unspecified project would be a better use of the land and would provide public access to the waterfront, now blocked off by The Herald building, which has a narrow bay-walk that’s been fenced off for security. (Under the sale agreement, the newspaper, which has taken no position on the designation issue, can remain in the building rent-free until April.)
Although Genting floated conceptual renderings for a colossal project on the site, no specific plans have been filed with the city, and its efforts to get resort-casino gambling legalized in the state have stalled.
Mayor Tomas Regalado and other city leaders have been eager to redevelop the site, though they have been cautious about embracing Genting’s ideas for it.
But laws governing historic designation effectively bar consideration of what other uses the site may have. The preservation board, whose members are appointed by elected officials, are required to make their decision based strictly on the existing building’s architectural and historic merits, as well as possibilities for reuse. The board has final say, although Genting could appeal a grant of historic designation to the commission.
If the preservation board votes Monday to accept the case, that would bar any applications for building permits by Genting while the city preservation office readies an in-depth analysis of the building’s architectural and historic merits.
An initial preservation report by the city, however, is studiously cool on the case, urging board members to “carefully’’ consider the building’s historic value but dismissing its architectural merits out of hand — a stance that preservationists consider absurd given increasing literature documenting and extolling its design.
The report’s conclusions echo criticism by two leading Miami preservationists, architect Richard Heisenbottle and former Miami-Dade County preservation director Ivan Rodriguez, hired by Genting to rebut Dade Heritage Trust.
To the architectural consultants, The Herald building is no more than an obsolete industrial structure with little to recommend it architecturally or historically.
They say few of the events the Knights or Chapman influenced took place inside the building. And while the building does contain elements of MiMo design, they say, it’s no exemplar of the style.
“Clumsy, squat, with no sense of scale and proportion,’’ Rodriguez said. “I fail to see any qualities in it. It’s an industrial building. Take the sunscreens out, and all you have is a big, bulky box.’’
That view was echoed in a letter this month to the city preservation board by developer Armando Codina, who is leading a group trying, in the wake of the Genting purchase, to come up with an urban plan for the area to discourage development that would overwhelm the Arsht Center.
Heisenbottle and Rodriguez, like other Genting supporters, also suggested the designation effort is no more than a disguised campaign to stop casinos or development on the site.
But while designation might make redevelopment of the site more complicated, it would not prevent it from adding to or erecting a tower over the Herald building, or putting a casino or massive new buildings on the site, which also includes acres of parking lots. Genting also owns the adjacent Omni mall and other land in the area.
Countless historic buildings have been saved through sometimes dramatic adaptations or additions, preservationists note. Last week, in fact, the new owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Art Deco building, which the newspaper recently vacated, unveiled plans to convert it into a luxury hotel and casino.
“Any architect worth his salt would be able to figure out something creative for The Herald building, especially Arquitectonica,’’ said Miami historian Arva Moore Parks, referring to the famed Miami firm hired by Genting to design its resort.
The resistance to recognizing The Herald building’s architectural value, Parks said, is no different from initial popular resistance to saving Victorian houses and Miami Beach’s Art Deco buildings, all once widely regarded as eyesores.
“With modern architecture and modern preservation it is particularly difficult to make the case, because you’re basically on the cusp of history,’’ said Sandra Suarez, who teaches modern-architecture preservation at Florida International University and is assisting the effort to designate The Herald building.
“I do think it is actually quite beautiful. It is one of the big monuments of the first 100 years of the city.’’
Preservationists are not the only ones who have come to a newfound appreciation of it. The building is featured in three recent architectural guides to the city, two of them published under the American Institute of Architects’ imprint, as well as in the book that first drew recognition to Miami Modern design, by planner and writer Randall Robinson.
That book, MiMo, has a preface by Arquitectonica co-principal Laurinda Spear that concludes, “MiMo has the potential to become as big a draw for Miami as Deco is, if we manage to save it.’’
One guide, Miami Architecture, co-authored by Robinson, Miami architect Allan Shulman and historian James Donnelly, calls The Herald building “an iconic presence.’’ Like the other books, it highlights the building’s adaptation, by a well-known Chicago architect of the period, Sigurd Naess, of Modernist design to Miami’s subtropical climate through the use of color, including yellow mosaic tile on the spandrels below its rows of windows, as well as shading elements like metallic screens over the windows.
The books and the heritage trust’s extensive application also extol grand, often-overlooked architectural gestures on the office building, including the 16 granite-covered pylons that hold up the soaring, futuristic canopy over the main entrance, the 30-foot high glass-and-metal lobby wall, and the tall escalators that lead to a dramatic, double-height second floor with Mad Men-era panache and sweeping bay views.
The vast structure — like all traditional newspaper buildings, a marriage of offices and printing plant — was widely celebrated on its 1963 dedication as the largest and most advanced commercial structure in Florida. A special Herald edition described the new building as “a composite of the beautiful and the functional.’’
“The materials and craftsmanship are exceptional. The porte cochere is absolutely a work of art,’’ Robinson said, referring to the entranceway.
But even its fans acknowledge the bulding’s merits are not an easy sell to casual observers.
“The Bacardi building has always captured people’s imagination. Like the Freedom Tower, it’s a svelte building,’’ said prominent Miami architect Raul Rodriguez, whose projects have ranged from Modernist college buildings to preservation of Mediterranean treasures like the Freedom Tower. “This one is not going to win a popularity contest. It houses an institution that was not always popular. The Herald was a powerhouse. The building was like a citadel few people penetrated. But it is a quality building for its era, not a trash building at all.’’
Rodriguez, who is not involved in the designation effort, says the building’s concrete shell, a regular structural grid, could easily be converted to other uses.
“I don’t think there is a reason to demolish the building other than to say they want to put something else there,’’ he said. “But we cannot go about just tearing down buildings, it’s not even green to do that. The overwhelming argument to designate the building is this — that the building has done nothing to deserve being knocked down.’’