A jewel of America’s national parks, the old Flamingo Visitor Center at Everglades National Park, is in the running for a makeover and it’s up to you, reader, to decide its fate.
One of eight pilot projects built in the 1950s as part of the Mission 66 project to usher modern architecture into parks, the vibrant pink center stood as a beacon to visitors braving Florida’s remote tip. Built atop stilts, the center boasted sweeping views of Florida Bay from its jalousie windows, served as a gateway to the nation’s only subtropical watery wilderness and introduced the concept of a visitor center at national parks.
But the years have not been kind. In 2005, back-to-back hurricanes slammed the park, damaging the old lodge beyond repair and leaving the iconic center tattered.
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Now, with the park service about to turn 100, a partnership between the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express has joined forces with National Geographic to spruce up historic places at national parks. Twenty sites across the country, including sentry boxes built in the 1700s at Puerto Rico’s San Juan National Historic Site and a 1926 cabin at Denali National Park, have been nominated. Winners will be selected based on a tally of online votes logged through July.
Here we are 50 years later presented with an opportunity to rebuild Flamingo but kind of hang on to that history.
Don Finefrock, executive director of the South Florida National Parks Trust
“What makes Flamingo special is that the park service really went in a different direction with Mission 66 in terms of architectural style and how it built facilities in the park to welcome that post war generation,” said Don Finefrock, executive director of the South Florida National Parks Trust. “Here we are 50 years later presented with an opportunity to rebuild Flamingo but kind of hang on to that history.”
Last month, Everglades officials asked for proposals due by July 13. The park is offering to cover up to $5 million in property investments in exchange for a 20-year concession and an annual franchise fee of 9 percent for a contract that also includes boat tours, a restaurant, kayak, canoe, skiff and houseboat rentals, and marina services.
Constructed in 1957, the old center was designed by Coral Gables architect Harry Kleck in collaboration with the park service in a style that came to be known as Park Service Modern — not too fancy but a far cry from the rustic accommodations that once welcomed visitors. A bit of MiMo was injected with a hot pink coating of paint and louvered screen walls while cost-effective building materials were used to honor the park’s commitment to leaving a light footprint on its wild lands. A sweeping ramp hints at what seems like an infinite bay as visitors climb to a breezeway connecting two wings.
On one side, a bare bones educational center offers maps and information. The former restaurant on the other side is shuttered. But Finefrock said the park recently completed designs to restore the interior with the new visitor center and bookstore occupying the old restaurant.
“With all three coming together at the same time, it’s probably the most momentum on rebuilding Flamingo since shortly after the hurricanes,” he said. It’s “the kind of vision of what it could be.”