Before Henry Flagler’s East Coast Railway arrived in 1896, the census in Miami could just about have been taken with a show of hands. The settlement that had begun on the north bank of the Miami River a half century earlier, Fort Dallas as it was called, had reached maybe 300 residents. The most prominent of these was a Cleveland heiress named Julia Tuttle who bought up 640 acres of land on the north side of the river where Miami is today and began planting citrus trees.
Almost from the beginning, however, Tuttle was looking beyond her orange groves. She pestered Henry Flagler in numerous letters to extend his railroad down to Biscayne Bay and offered him free land to do so. Flagler was doing just fine in St. Augustine and resisted Mrs. Tuttle’s entreaties. Then a great freeze descended on Florida in 1894-1895 that devastated the orange groves in central and northern Florida but did not reach the Miami river. Flagler’s railroad was in town the next summer and Miami was incorporated as a new city. The new town would grow steadily but Julia Tuttle would not be around to see it happen. She died of meningitis in 1898 at the age of 49.
The Everglades would be drained and the Dixie Highway would reach Miami from the midwest in 1915 and wealthy northern industrialists began returning from their winter vacations with dreams of south Florida on their mind. After World War I ended Miami was primed to be America’s boom town. The population of 30,000 in 1920 doubled by 1923 and doubled again by 1925. Skyscrapers were seemingly rising on every corner of downtown. The boom was residing in 1926 and was deflated totally on September 19, 1926 when a hurricane battered the city. And then the stock market crashed. By 1930 Miami had actually lost almost 25% of its population.
Most of the buildings we will see on our downtown Miami tour are a product of the Boom years or were constructed in the days of recovery in the late 1930s. Many reflect the dominant Mediterranean Revival style or show an adaptation of those elements to other architectural styles. We will start, however, with a building that makes no concessions to its tropical surroundings, a Neoclassical tour de force that would stand proudly in any major American city...
The Dade County Courthouse
73 West Flagler Street
This was Florida’s tallest building when it was completed in 1928. Albert Anthony Ten Eyck Brown, an Atlanta architect, designed one of Miami’s best examples of Neoclassical architecture for this seat of government, still active today. It stands 360 feet tall; the base of the 28-story skyscraper is sheathed in Stone Mountain granite, while the rest of the tower is covered in terra cotta tinted to match the granite.
WITH YOUR BACK TO THE COURTHOUSE, WALK ONTO FLAGLER STREET AND TURN LEFT AND WALK ONE BLOCK TO MIAMI STREET.
22 East Flagler Street at Miami Street
In 1896, when Henry Payne and William M. Burdine were opening a dry goods store in the central Florida city of Bartow, this vacant lot at the corner of Miami Avenue and Flagler street sold for $150. In 1925 when the United Cigar Company sold the property it fetched $1.5 million. Burdine meanwhile had purchased an entire block on South Miami Avenue one block south of Flagler Street in 1898. Here W.M Burdine & Sons opened a tiny store. Even though the little emporium handled scarcely more than few shelves of clothing business was so brisk Burdine shuttered the Bartow store and staked his future in Miami. Burdines migrated to this prime location and its flagship store received the streamlined Art Moderne appearance in the late 1930s, executed by Henry Lapointe. When Burdines needed to expand rather than go up it went across the street and erected a three-level connector. The stores were decorated with pink walls, blue ceilings with streaks of clouds, and large plastic palm trees circling the center of the store. The iconic south Florida department chain was purchased by Federated Department Stores in 1956 and has recently been rebranded as Federated’s star franchise – Macy’s.
TURN LEFT ON MIAMI AVENUE. TURN RIGHT ON NE 1ST STREET.
The Seybold Building
36 NE 1st Street
John W.G. Seybold was born in Germany in 1872 and arrived at dawn in Miami in 1896 and established a bakery. He later became a prominent merchant and developer. His projects included a canal, residential subdivisions and this building in the early 1920s. It began with three floors (a bakery operated on the first floor) but Seybold soon added an additional seven. In the 1970s the Seybold Building was transformed into an in-house jewelry community and today it is the second largest jewelry building in the United States. Inside over 280 jewelers represent all phases of the jewelry trade.
Ralston Building/Carrion Jewelry
40 NE 1st Avenue at NE 1st Street
When completed in 1917, this eight-story building was the tallest in Miami. Its reign was brief, however, as it was shortly supplanted by the McAllister Hotel. Today it is known as the Carrion Jewelry Center and fused aesthetically to its three-story neighbor on the corner.
CROSS OVER 1ST AVENUE.
120 NE 1st Street
The first arcade, an ancestor of today’s indoor shopping mall, opened in Providence, Rhode Island in 1828. In the early part of the 20th century they found a surge of popularity in many American downtowns. The Shoreland is the last remaining intact arcade in downtown Miami. Architects Pfeiffer and O’Reilly gave the stylish building a parade of large arched openings divided by fanciful pilasters highlighted by medallions of Florida history. They were expecting a much larger commission but the Shoreland Company went bust before a planned skyscraper above the arcade could be executed.
The Meyer-Kiser Building
139 NE 1st Street
When this building was constructed in 1925 it stood a proud 17 stories. But a year later the September hurricane of 1926 ripped off cladding and bucked steel beams in the middle of the building and ten floors had to be removed. Ironically the tower, designed by Martin Luther Hampton, was built to be hurricane resistant. In spite of that precaution it was also one of the few downtown buildings insured.
RETRACE YOUR STEPS TO 1ST AVENUE AND TURN RIGHT.
Old U.S. Post Office and Courthouse
100 NE 1st Avenue
This building, constructed between 1912 and 1914, was the first major federal building to be constructed in Miami, marking the city’s arrival a town of import. Supervising architect for the United States Department of the Treasury Oscar Wenderoth designed the Neoclassical building rendered in Indiana limestone. It was hailed as the most modern and well-appointed government structure south of Washington, D.C. Wenderoth blended South Florida elements such as wide, bracketed eaves and red tile roof with classical hallmarks such as arched entrances and Ionic pilasters. On the second story a series of double doors open onto stylized balconies with twisted iron railings. The post office occupied the first floor, courtrooms were on the second floor and assorted agencies were housed on the third floor; access came via a building-length set of six steps along 1st Avenue. The government only stayed for less than 20 years before moving to even larger accommodations in 1931. The building was acquired and adapted in 1937 by the First Federal Savings and Loan Association. First Federal had started in a single room in 1933 and by 1937 was the town’s largest savings and loan operation.
117 NE 1st Avenue
In 1926 Robert Greenfield dialed back fifty years to the French Second Empire style, a Victorian style popular before Miami existed, to give his 16-story tower a copper mansard roof topped by an ornate octagonal cupola. Below the fanciful roof is a classically designed skyscraper of perfect proportions. The client was the Dade County Security Company, organized in 1901 and one of the biggest players in Florida’s land boom at the time. Emblematic of that role the Security Building was the town’s most imposing structure, constructed with the most expensive materials, including granite blocks.
140 NE 1st Avenue
George L. Pfeiffer was born in Germany in 1861, began his architectural career with the picturesque buildings of the Victorian age in Chicago, found his way to Miami and practiced until 1940 in the era of Art Deco - one of the more unique career arcs in American design. Pfeiffer was one of the organizers of the Florida Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and served as its President. For this corner lot Pfeiffer and his associate, Gerald J. O’Reilly, designed a two-story fireproof masonry building sheathed in stucco and awash in artistic Neoclassical motifs. Look up above an altered street level to see a second story alive with decorative flourishes in the form of cartouches and stylized acanthus leaves. A segmented balustrade tops the confection. The building was commissioned by Anna B. Hahn in 1921 and is a rare survivor representing the earliest days of the Florida Land Boom.
Gesu Church and Rectory
118-170 NE 2nd Street at 1st Avenue
The first Catholic service in Miami took place on the homestead of the pioneer family of William J. Wagner in the 1870s; the Holy Name Parish - Gesu today -was organized in 1896. This is the second building on this site that was donated by railroad magnate Henry M. Flagler, a Presbyterian. This Mediterranean Revival church designed by Orin T. Williams replaced the original wooden structure in 1925. The visual star of the coral-colored stucco building is its grand, three-story Ionic portico surmounted by a classically inspired three-part tower on a Spanish tiled roof. The crystal leaded windows depicting events in the life of Jesus and Mary were crafted in Germany; inside all the altars are made of Italian marble and there are no posts or pillars to obstruct the view.
U.S. Post Office and Courthouse
300 NE 1st Avenue
Phineas Paist, who cut his architectural teeth on the classical styles introduced at the 1893 World Columbian exposition in Chicago, and his partner Harold Steward were responsible for many public buildings around Miami, especially in Coral Gables and at the University of Miami. Here they adapted their Neoclassical expertise to the tropics for the three-story federal building. Built at the height of the Great Depression in 1931, this is also the largest building in Miami constructed of Florida keystone, a soft limestone that hardens when exposed to the air. The firm of Paist and Steward lost profit on the courthouse project due to faulty building materials.
TURN RIGHT ON NE 3RD STREET AND WALK ONE BLOCK TO NE 2ND AVENUE AND TURN RIGHT.
111 NE 2nd Avenue
Thomas O. Wilson came south from Philadelphia in 1911 to establish the Woodlawn Park Cemetery and soon expanded his real estate empire with the Realties Security Corporation. To house his company Wilson commissioned Martin Luther Hampton to design a headquarters in 1923. The Congress Building started as a richly decorated five-story Mediterranean Revival structure with polychromed terra cotta surrounding five vertical bays defined by monumental round arches. Three years later Hampton was back with marching orders to add 16 more stories, integrating a traditional-looking skyscraper into his original design.
Alfred I. DuPont Building
169 East Flagler Street at 2nd Avenue
After a decade in the economic doldrums, breaking ground on this 260-foot, 21-floor skyscraper in 1937 marked a return to vitality in the Miami business community. Designed by the Florida architectural firm of Marsh and Saxelbye, the Alfred I. DuPont Building stands as Miami’s only Art Deco tower. Harold F. Saxelbye was born and trained in England before sailing to New York City in 1904 at the age of 24. His work brought him to Jacksonville in 1914 where he met William Mulford Marsh, a self-trained local architect. The two formed what would be a lucrative partnership in 1919, specializing in Mediterranean Revival residences. Here they created a classic skyscraper form in the image of a Greek column with a defined base (the black granite street level), a shaft (the unadorned middle floors) and a capital (the decorative roofline). The building was constructed as the headquarters for the Florida National Bank, organized by Alfred I. du Pont in 1931. DuPont had died in 1935 and the $2.5 million structure was planned as a sort of memorial; it remains virtually unaltered since it opened in 1939. If you walk inside you can see one of Miami’s lushest interiors with hand-painted cypress ceilings and brass bas relief elevator doors and fixtures festooned with tropical Florida images.
Olympia Theater and Office Building (Gusman Center)
174 East Flagler Street
Theater architect John Eberson would become famous in the 1930s for his “atmospheric” designs calculated to transport patrons on journeys of the mind to exotic locales. The Olympia, when it opened as a silent movie palace in 1925, was one of his earliest projects. If movie-goers weren’t bowled over by the fabulous Moorish/Venetian interior the first air-conditioning in Dade County would certainly win them over. The exterior of the ten-story office building was executed in the Mediterranean Revival style and offers little hint of the wonders awaiting inside. The Olympia was Miami’s premier entertainment venue for more than four decades but with the building fraying at the edges businessman Maurice Gusman stepped in to save the building from demolition in the 1970s and donated it to the city. A complete restoration to the 1920s original appearance took place in the late 1990s.
The Walgreen Drug Store
200 East Flagler Street
In the early years of the Great Depression it was rare to find a major building project that wasn’t government sponsored. So in 1936 when Walgreen Drugs invested $1.5 million to construct the largest store in its chain here it was regarded as a harbinger of good times to come. The futuristic Streamline Moderne design by Chicago architects Zimmerman, Saxe, MacBridge, and Ehmann further promoted the sense of optimism. Customers entered the store through a wide curved corner tower with ribbon windows running down each block. Inside they found an 88-foot soda fountain stocked by a separate ice cream plant. Walgreens has moved but the building has been rehabilitated by subsequent retailers and remains one of the best examples of Moderne style in South Florida.
The Ingraham Building
25 SE 2nd Avenue
With a pedigree that includes the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City and the Breakers in Palm Beach it is no wonder this 13-story Italian Renaissance building is regarded in some circles as the city’s most elegant high-rise. Best known for their work on luxury hotels, Leonard Schultze and S. Fullerton Weaver brought the same design sensibilities to this headquarters for the Model Land Company, the real estate division of Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway in 1926. No expense was spared with this memorial to James E. Ingraham, former president of the Model Land Company who had worked in Florida since the frontier days of the 1890s. The rusticated Indiana limestone marches all the way up the facade to a hipped roof covered in Spanish tiles. Inside, the celebrated lobby boasts a vaulted ceiling encircled by engaged Doric columns.
TURN RIGHT ON SE 1ST STREET.
The Huntington Building
168 SE 1st Street
Frederick Rand was an Orlando attorney who came to Miami in 1916 and got swept up in the development craze. He created several subdivisions including Highland Park, Broadmoor, Miramar, and Edgewater and acquired a healthy chunk of land along NE 2nd Avenue where he envisioned a new downtown center sprouting. He brought architect Louis Kamper in from Detroit to design this fanciful building in 1925. Kamper decorated the stuccoed 13-story building with architectural figures including 11 knight-like figures along the roofline. More allegorical figures lined a wide masonry belt course between the third and fourth floors and the three-story projection at the entrance once sported a quartets of winged griffins, now gone. The building was named for Rand’s sister, Elizabeth Huntington. Frederick Rand’s vision for a new downtown would not come to pass, however, as he went bankrupt in Miami’s economic crash of 1926
City National Bank
121 SE 1st Street
Plans for this 11-story Neoclassical tower were drawn by Hampton and Ehmann who placed most of the visual emphasis on the oversized entrance where fluted pilasters frame a two-story recessed arch entrance. The roofline boasts a raised parapet wall adorned with hefty brackets. Martin Luther Hampton and E.A. Ehmann were busy in Miami in the 1920s and 1930s, working mostly in the Mediterranean Revival style and this was one of the firm’s largest projects. Construction was started in 1925 for the Miami Bank and Trust Company and financed by a St. Louis Bank, one of the earliest instances when the money for of a major Florida building was undertaken by out-of-state capital. Before the high-rise could be completed, however, and was placed into operation by the J.C. Penney City National Bank and Trust Company and named the “City National Bank Building.” That bank went under in 1930 as the building became a poster child for the chaotic Miami economy of the era.
TURN RIGHT ON 1ST AVENUE AND WALK ONE BLOCK TO FLAGLER STREET.
Flagler First Condos
101 East Flagler Street
Perched on a phalanx of oversized Greek columns topped by Corinthian capitals, these condos began life in the 1920s as the headquarters for First National Bank of Miami. The bank, which was one of only two Florida banks to survive the Great Depression and would become the state’s largest, began on this site in 1902. It would ultimately be liquidated in 1991 by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation using a new procedure called “loss sharing.”
TURN LEFT ON FLAGLER STREET TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT.