A black and white 1927 photograph depicts horsemen bearing sabers — swords with curved blades — and dressed in Arabian attire galloping out of a building that resembles a castle from stories such as “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp” or “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
Other photographs taken on the same day show women clad in harem clothing with scarves draped over their heads and men in pantaloons and turbans.
The images resemble scenes from a movie shot on location in the Middle East or from tales that are part of Arabian Nights – and that very well may have been the intent of the organizers of this elaborate show.
The historical photos, however, were taken in a northwest Miami-Dade County municipality — Opa-locka — on the day that the first train, the Orange Blossom Special, arrived in the city on the Seaboard Railway. That day was commemorated with an Arabian Nights fantasy festival. Atop a white horse, the Grand Vizir — portrayed by the Opa-locka Company’s President G. Carl Adams — greeted the train’s visitors who had come for the festival.
Opa-locka was the perfect place to hold an Arabian Nights festival, as the city is home to municipal buildings, as well as private homes that are designed to resemble illustrations in One Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights, a collection of tales based on Arabic, Persian, Indian and Egyptian folklore.
The architecture is not Moorish in the sense that it resembles architecture of the Islamic domination over North Africa and South Spain, but it is rather an inspired interpretation from the tales in the Arabian Nights.
Common architectural elements appear in city buildings, both public and private: minarets, or tall towers, doorways placed off-center or to the side of the building’s façade, roof domes, flat roofs with crenelated parapets, horseshoe or pointed arches, textured stucco walls and, in some cases, barrel-tiled roofs.
The city’s boundaries are: Northwest 151st Street on the north; Northwest 125th Street on the south, including a section that extends to East 65th Street; Northwest 47th Avenue to the west; and Northwest 17th Avenue to the east.
Glenn Curtiss, an aviation pioneer and also the developer of Hialeah and Miami Springs, embarked on the development of Opa-locka. Before the city incorporated in May 1926, it carried the name of Opatishawokalocka. While accounts differ on what the name means, historical books often define it as, “big island covered with many trees in the swamps.”
In the early 1920s, Curtiss commissioned New York City-based architect Bernhardt Muller with the task of designing Opa-locka’s buildings. According to some historical accounts, Curtiss sent Muller a copy of Arabian Nights as a guide of what he wanted the city to look like.
The first building Muller designed, the administration building — or the old city hall that the current Opa-locka commission outgrew and moved out of — became a signature of the city’s architectural style.
The three-story building, modeled after a sultan’s palace in “The Talking Bird” story, has five domes and five minarets, as well as multiple horseshoe and painted archways leading into a courtyard.
“The architect was trying to capture the feeling of these stories with this building,” said Jose Vasquez, a Miami Dade College architecture professor, who with his students over the course of three years put together an exhibit at HistoryMiami that chronicles Opa-locka’s architecture.