In downtown Miami, a grand architectural revival

11/29/2013 2:24 PM

11/29/2013 2:33 PM

After sitting vacant for most of a decade, the grandest old Miami building no one knows about is springing back to life, and you’re welcome — nay, implored — to drop in any time.

The Old Old U.S. Post Office in downtown Miami — so called to distinguish it from the Old U.S. Courthouse and Post Office up the street — will reopen to the public in early December as a new center for architecture and design that its sponsor, the Miami chapter of the American Institute of Architects, intends to turn into a nexus of cultural activity for the renascent urban core.

As its ramps up operations over the next several months, the Miami Center for Architecture and Design will hold exhibitions, lectures, film screenings, forums and guided walking tours of downtown’s little-appreciated architectural treasures, including a collection of dazzling early 20th Century buildings on the National Register of Historic Places.

Also on the drawing board: a small design-focused shop, a downtown welcome center for tourists, and studios for visiting architects and scholars.

The MCAD, as it’s been dubbed, is modeled after architecture centers in Chicago, New York and other major U.S. cities that have become big draws for residents and tourists looking for a deeper dive into a town’s urban and architectural history. Though the center was years in the planning, AIA leaders say the timing is propitious as Miami embraces design as a signature element and the area sits at the cusp of yet another transformative – and, as ever, controversial – wave of development.

“I think Miami has a very dynamic architectural environment right now. There are so many things happening,’’ said AIA chapter president Allan Shulman, a leading Miami architect who also designed the new center. “We want anybody coming through Miami, not just architects or AIA members, to come here.

“We want to promote looking at architecture and discourse about architecture, to talk about it and argue about it. We want to make it a total open house.’’

The AIA could not have chosen a more suitable home than the old post office, an elegant, limestone-clad structure in a Classically inspired Italianate style that dates to 1912, which makes it one of the earliest grand buildings erected in the city, and almost certainly the only one of its heft that survives from that era. Its near twin, built in 1913, is an anchor of Old Pasadena in California, according to Shulman’s AIA Miami Architecture guide.

“Miami was so thrilled to have it when it was built,’’ said historian Arva Moore Parks.

Though it was outdone in scale and grandeur 20 years later by the larger Mediterranean-style U.S. courthouse and post office two blocks north that was necessitated by Miami’s explosive growth, the older building retained its prominence after being taken over by First Federal Savings. The bank occupied it until 1990. The last tenant, an Office Depot, moved out about eight years ago.

Along the way, marble flooring was covered with layers of vinyl. Installation of dropped acoustical ceilings obscured and damaged the majestic vaulted arches that support the 16-foot high first-floor ceiling.

But its exterior — including arched doorways, wrought-iron balconies and a clay-tiled, overhanging hipped roof — was nearly intact. Developer Scott Robins, a South Beach pioneer, bought it a decade ago, restored the facade and maintained the three-story building, which also has a basement and a soaring attic, while he waited for the right tenant.

That turned out to be the AIA. Under executive director Cheryl Jacobs, the professional association decided it was important, practically and symbolically, to put its center smack in the middle of the burgeoning downtown scene.

“The AIA wanted to make a statement in a landmark building,’’ Robins said. “Miami is coming of age culturally and architecturally, and I think it’s finally time for downtown Miami.’’

The center will occupy the building’s ground floor, which will open onto Northeast First Avenue, and a portion of the second story. Under Shulman’s design, the ground floor and its vaulted ceiling and columns have been meticulously restored with contemporary touches, including glass interior walls. At the center, a new staircase of welded steel plates leads to the second floor, which contains exhibition and meeting space and a studio with room for up to 15 work stations.

The ground floor, which contains a small suite of offices for the AIA chapter at the back, was designed with maximum flexibility in mind, Shulman said: Glass partitions provide separation for the offices but can swing open; pivoting solid walls provide hanging space for exhibitions; and an open section in the middle can provide seating for up to 70 people for screenings and lectures. A video wall can be programmed for rotating displays and information graphics on places and events.

The project budget is a bit over a modest $300,000, most of it raised through the AIA. That was augmented by substantantial pro-bono work by members, including architect and former chapter president John Forbes, and donations of materials, furnishings and equipment, including a $150,000 audio-visual system, Jacobs said. The Downtown Development Authority made a $25,000 grant and is providing the AIA an additional $25,000 to operate the welcome center.

First up on opening Dec. 6: An exhibit called “Drawn from Miami’,’ which features some 90 hand drawings by architects of local buildings, plans and schemes. Among them are the historic and familiar, the obscure and never built, culled from some 250 submissions. The drawings, some never before exhibited, range from fully finished architectural illustrations to construction drawings and napkin doodles. They’re by well-known architects from Miami and from out-of-town, including star architects Enrique Norten and the Swiss duo Herzog & de Meuron, designers of the new Perez Art Museum Miami.

Two tours will likely be offered starting after New Year’s: a walking tour of historic downtown buildings, and a second focused on the modern urban environment. The DDA also commissioned a book of renderings of historic downtown buildings that will be available later in the year.

“There are so many beautiful historic buildings down here and most people don’t have a clue,’’ Jacobs said. “My dream and my goal is that the center becomes the place where discussion of the urban environment takes place, important programs that talk about big issues in the community.’’

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