With discussion swirling around the possibility of historic designation for the old Miami Herald building, one must not lose sight of the intent and purpose of the city’s preservation program.
The basic premise of Miami’s Historic Preservation Ordinance is to accomplish the protection, enhancement, perpetuation and use of structures, neighborhoods, and scenic vistas representing distinctive elements of the city’s historic, cultural, aesthetic, and architectural heritage. Compromising this intent by protecting unworthy buildings — possibly for reasons other than preservation — diminishes the ordinance’s value as a preservation tool and jeopardizes future conservation efforts.
The Dade Heritage Trust suggests preservation of the Miami Herald building is warranted essentially because the structure is associated with the life of significant individuals in Miami’s history and is an outstanding work of a prominent designer or builder.
In considering these factors, we must acknowledge that while men like John S. and James L. Knight, Alvah Chapman, Jr. and the paper’s early editors and photographers were important figures in Miami’s history, there is little justification for saving the building where they worked. And though the Herald as a newspaper has documented momentous events in our city’s past, these happenings took place outside the building’s walls. In fact, many of the Herald’s contributions to the newspaper industry occurred at the company’s former location at 200 South Miami Avenue. By the time the Herald’s present home was completed in 1963, its standing in the community was already well established.
The Herald building, which has been sold to Genting Resorts World, also falls short of demonstrating distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style or period. It is an industrial “working building” with a “big box” printing press whose waterfront setting was chosen purely for the utilitarian purpose of docking barges that transported huge rolls of newsprint. While the building has some Miami Modern (MiMo) design features, it does not exemplify the finer qualities of MiMo architecture.
The building’s lackluster design is by no means an outstanding work of a prominent designer. Sigurd Naess is credited as the architect. However, his formal training is as a planner, not as an architect. He modeled the Herald building after the Chicago Sun Times headquarters, a much criticized project of his that was later demolished to make room for new development on the Chicago waterfront. The razing of the Sun Times building faced virtually no pushback in a city that takes historic preservation seriously.
The Herald building also fails significantly from an urban planning perspective. Prior to the building’s construction, the area was a vibrant commercial neighborhood with hotels, restaurants and retail situated along the existing urban grid. A number of the buildings were fine examples of Mediterranean Revival and Art Deco architecture. The Herald building demonstrated a complete lack of sensitivity to its beautiful scenic vistas and waterfront setting, as well as the scale and character of the surrounding neighborhood at the time.
Preservation in Miami has a high standard embodied in two recently designated sites: the Bacardi Building and the Miami Marine Stadium, both of which are almost universally considered truly outstanding examples of mid-century modern architecture.
Meanwhile, the Miami Herald building exemplifies the worst in post-war urban planning and architecture, standing as an affront to sound design principles and blocking public access to Biscayne Bay. Formally designating the structure as historic would only perpetuate a bad urban condition and glorify the mistakes of the past.
Ivan Rodriguez is a former Miami-Dade County Historic Preservation Officer. Richard J. Heisenbottle is a preservation architect and former member of the City of Miami Historic Preservation Board.