To those familiar with the Spanish town of Seville, the 12-foot weathervane above downtown Coral Gables is an unmistakable homage to the historic Spanish city long known as a center for trade, literature, architecture and of course, the flamenco.
Atop the high-rise Alhambra Towers office building, the female figure carrying a shaft of wheat, a helmet and a Christian cross is a replica of the bronze weathervane that has dominated the sky of Seville for more than four centuries. Still today, the Giraldillo, or Spinner, crowns the Giralda, the belltower of the Gothic Cathedral of Sevilla.
Built in 2002, Alhambra Towers is the latest in a series of South Florida tributes to one of Spain’s grandest cities. In the early 1920s, four towers were modeled after the Giralda. Two of them would later be torn down. The two that survived are national landmarks, the Biltmore Tower and the Freedom Tower.
An exhibition at the Coral Gables Museum showcases the Giralda’s influence on the South Florida skyline. “Creating the View, George Merrick and His Vision for Coral Gables” has been curated by Miami historian Arva Moore Parks, who is writing a biography of Coral Gables developer George Merrick.
Though Merrick never visited Spain, he was an avid reader of Washington Irving’s romantic journeys through the country’s southern region, says Parks, and dreamed of long streets of beautiful “castles in Spain.” His 1924 newspaper ad announcing the Biltmore, his signature hotel inspired by the Giralda’s design, promised “the most beautiful tower in Europe” would be reproduced in his new planned city.
Merrick had already envisioned other references to Spain — in an arched entrance to the new community and the city hall that would be completed in 1928. But the Giralda would be the centerpiece of the community “in recognition of the debt which America and Florida especially” owed to Christopher Columbus, read the ad.
In reality, the explorer who is credited with “discovering” the Americas never set foot in Florida. Columbus’ association with the Giralda was, however, real. Though much of his life remains a mystery, historians believe Columbus lived for some years in Seville, the city that became the main port linking the Old and the New Worlds in the 16th and 17th centuries.
By then, the tower had long been associated with Seville. Built in the late 12th century as a minaret for the main mosque of the city of Isbiliya during Spain’s Moorish period, the Giralda was converted to a bell tower for the mosque-turned-cathedral after the city was taken by the Christians in 1248 and renamed Seville.
In the late 16th century, architect Hernan Ruiz added an upper level with balconies and a belfry, creating a unique fusion of Moorish and Spanish Renaissance architecture. The Giraldillo was installed on its top in 1568 to represent “the triumph” of the Christian faith.
Some 350 years later, Merrick turned to the iconic Spanish tower for inspiration. He wasn’t alone; in the post World War I years, architects nationwide looked to European monuments for inspiration for lavish Beaux Arts and Mediterranean facades.
As skyscrapers sprouted in cities across the land, the towering Giralda offered particular appeal. New York’s Madison Square Garden tower, Chicago’s Wrigley Building and the San Francisco Ferry Building all featured Giralda-esque lookouts.
The Spanish tower was both visually striking and relatively easy to replicate, explains Allan Shulman, an architect and associate professor at the University of Miami.
“Perhaps what is so effective about the Giralda is that it efficiently adds an iconic or monumental feature to an otherwise mid-rise building block,” Shulman says.
But perhaps no U.S. city had more “Giralda” towers in a single moment than Miami, says Parks, the historian.
Just two years after Merrick announced he would replicate the Spanish monument, four Giralda-inspired towers had been built in South Florida. Downtown Miami’s Freedom Tower, completed in 1925, was designed by the New York firm of Schultze and Weaver, which also designed the Biltmore Hotel, opened in 1926. That same year, the Roney Plaza opened in Miami Beach; it also featured a Shultze-and-Weaver-designed Giralda-inspired tower. During that same 1926 boom, the New York-based Fred F. French Cos. incorporated a similar tower into downtown Miami’s Everglades Hotel.
Unfortunately, says Parks, two of them — both part of luxurious hotels — were demolished with little opposition. The Roney was torn down in 1968, to be replaced by the Roney Apartments. At the Everglades, a television aerial replaced the tower in 1949; the hotel was later demolished in 2005. Like the Roney, a condo of the same name was built in its place.
The Biltmore and Freedom towers were saved from a similar fate only after preservationists intervened. Both are now protected as national historic landmarks.
The fifth Giralda to be built in South Florida, the West Tower of the Alhambra Towers, was built by the Allen Morris Co. in 2002. The idea, says Morris, was to “honor the vision and inspiration of George Merrick and Walter DeGarmo,” a 1920s architect whose work appears through South Florida.
The Giraldillo topping the West Tower was reproduced by the sculptor Gary Rager, of Rager Studios in Orlando. It is the only “Giralda” tower in South Florida crowned by the iconic Sevillian Spinner.
But the female statue does have another sister relatively nearby. Since 1634, the Giraldilla weathervane has guarded Havana Bay from a watchtower on The Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the Castle of the Royal Force. It, too, has become of the best-known symbols of Havana.