When Ben Manley joined his parents and younger sister in an effort to explore the family tree, their genealogical search didn’t really bring up any surprises. He knew a great-great aunt, Marion Manley, was the first female architect to practice in Miami, and only the second in all of Florida. But it was the details of her life — and accomplishments — that fascinated him.
“My father told us the stories he knew,” Ben said, “but when we started doing the research, we realized she had done a lot more than we originally thought she did.”
Architect Manley certainly had. Though she was best known as one of the driving design forces of an innovative University of Miami campus, she also worked on Miami’s U.S. Post Office and Federal Building in the 1930s and designed UM’s Ring Theater, the shell for the Asolo Theater at the Ringling Museum, and several Spanish-style houses around the area. As a groundbreaking pioneer in a male-dominated profession, Manley also inspired a book, Marion Manley: Miami’s First Woman Architect (Athens: University of Georgia Press: 2010) by Catherine Lynn and Carie Penabad.
Surprised that he and others didn’t know more about this woman, Ben, a 16-year-old Michael Krop High junior, decided to make a short documentary about his relative’s life. He recruited his younger sister, 14-year-old ninth-grader Marissa, and launched a yearlong research project. The result: Most Welcome Breezes: The Story of Marion Manley, a 15-minute film that chronicles the life and times of a remarkable woman.
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The film will be screened at 4 p.m. Jan. 31 at Books & Books.
“Our major goal was to raise awareness about her and her contributions,” Ben said. “Julia Tuttle and Marjory Stoneman Douglas got a lot of attention for the work they did, but she did as much and is not very well known [outside architecture circles]. We thought her recognition was long overdue.”
Ben acknowledges that most people, especially teenagers, don’t write and film a short documentary about a famous ancestor. (He also narrates the film.) But for Ben and Marissa, it was the natural medium with which to share what they discovered about Manley. A film enthusiast, Ben has worked on public service announcements as part of his community service projects.
“The material lent itself to doing a film because we had a lot of pictures,” he added.
In the film, Ben and Marissa trace their great-great aunt’s storied career. Born in Junction City, Kansas, in 1893 as the youngest of nine children, she moved to Miami in 1917 after graduating from the University of Illinois. During more than five decades, she was able to run an independent architectural practice at a time when she had to battle for commissions and was usually paid less than her male counterparts. At one point, Ben said, she would discover that a man she brought on to a commissioned project was paid twice what she had received.
Much of the documentary information is taken from archives at HistoryMiami as well as from the Lynn and Penabad book, but the younger Manleys also interviewed their father, Patrick Manley, a robotics teacher, and two of her friends. They paint a portrait of a “strong personality” who became a leading force during the growth of a young city while also keeping true to an artistic vision of building harmoniously with the landscape.
They include some of Marion’s personal story, too. She never married but had a series of female companions, relationships that Ben said she didn’t flaunt, but neither did she keep them secret.
“She was the type of person who would climb up on the roof to make sure that everything was right and going as she had designed,” Ben said. “She knew what she wanted, and she didn’t care what others thought.”
If You Go
What: Screening of ‘Most Welcome Breezes: The Story of Marion Manley’
When: 4 p.m. Jan. 31
Where: Books & Books, 265 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables