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Preservation board to decide on historic designation of the Miami Herald building

The city of Miami’s historic preservation office has compiled a lengthy, detailed report that substantially bolsters the case for designation of The Miami Herald’s “monumental’’ bayfront building as a protected landmark based on both its architectural merits and its historic significance.

Somewhat unusually, the 40-page report by city preservation officer Megan McLaughlin, which is supplemented by 30 pages of bibliography, plans and photographs, carries no explicit recommendation to the city’s preservation board, which is scheduled to decide the matter on Monday.

But her analysis gathers extensive evidence that the building’s history, the influential executives and editors associated with it, and its fusion of Mid-Century Modern and tropical Miami Modern (MiMo) design meet several of the legal criteria for designation set out in the city’s preservation ordinance and federal guidelines. A building has to meet just one of eight criteria to merit designation.

A spokeswoman for the city’s historic preservation office said there is no obligation to make a recommendation and the city’s preservation board didn’t ask for one.

Supporters of designation, including officials at Dade Heritage Trust, the preservation group that has received sometimes withering criticism from business and civic leaders for requesting designation, said they felt vindicated by the report, even as they concede that persuading a board majority to support it remains an uphill battle.

“It’s important that an objective expert is saying basically the same thing we’ve been saying, particularly in an environment where there is so much pressure,’’ said DHT chief executive Becky Roper Matkov. “It’s very hard to refute. When you look at the building’s architecture and history, it’s so blatantly historic, what else can you say?’’

The report also rebuts key pieces of criticism of the designation effort leveled by opponents of designation, including architects and a prominent local preservation historian hired by Genting, the Malaysian casino operator that purchased the Herald property last year for $236 million with plans to build a massive destination resort on its 10 acres. The newspaper remains in the building rent-free until April, when it will move to suburban Doral.

Citing federal rules, McLaughlin concluded that the building dates to its construction in 1960 and 1961, and not to its formal dedication in 1963. That’s significant because it makes the building legally older than 50 years. Buildings newer than that must be “exceptionally significant’’ to merit designation under city regulations. Opponents of designation have claimed the building does not qualify because it’s several months short of 50 years if dated from its ’63 opening.

The property also has a “minimal’’ baywalk at the rear but there is room to expand it, the report indicates. The building is considerably set back from the edge of Biscayne Bay, between 68 feet at the widest point and 23 feet at its narrowest, the report says. That’s comparable to what many new buildings provide, thanks in part to variances granted by the city, and could blunt criticism that the Herald building “blocks’’ public access to the bay.

The main obstacle to access to the back of the property, which The Herald has fenced off, is actually the embankment of the MacArthur Causeway at the south end, McLaughlin writes.

The report suggests the building meets the following criteria:

• Association in a significant way with the life of an important person.

The report details the history of the development of what was then the most advanced newspaper plant and offices in the country, and the largest and most complex structure in Florida, by its then-owners, brothers John S. and James L. Knight. It also recounts the evolution of their company, based in the building, into what became at one point the nation’s largest newspaper chain. It also cites the role of the brothers and their hand-picked successor, executive Alvah Chapman, in revolutionizing the newspaper industry through modern business practices and technology while working in the building.

Chapman also played key role in “countless’’ and significant civic initiatives in Miami, the report says. It also cites executive and editor Lee Hills, who helped raise the quality of the newspaper’s journalism, setting it on a path to winning numerous Pulitzer prizes.

• It exemplifies the historical, cultural, political, economical or social trends of the community.

The building, which anticipated the city’s population growth, represents the changing development patterns of downtown Miami at a time of explosive expansion and rapidly shifting demographics with the influx of Cuban refugees in the 1960s, the report says.

Operating out of the building, the Herald also helped “secure Miami’s role” as the capital of Latin America, the report says. It cites the publication of the newspaper’s influential Latin American edition and the launch of El Nuevo Herald, a Spanish-language sister newspaper, as “a powerful symbol of Miami’s evolution from a Southern city to a world-recognized center of Latin American and Caribbean culture, finance, and politics.’’

“The completion of the Miami Herald building on Biscayne Bay was a significant moment in the history of The Miami Herald and in the history of Miami itself,’’ the report says, noting the dedication was attended by 10,000 people.

• It embodies those distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style, or period, or method of construction.

“It is a vernacular interpretation of high-style Modern movement masterpieces,’’ the report says. “The building possesses many elements of MiMo (Miami Modern) architecture, including sunshades over the windows, mosaic tiles applied to the spandrels, accordion-style aggregate facing along the upper half of the first-floor podium, and the slender proportions and futuristic detailing of the porte-cochere,’’ or entry canopy

The report cites a Florida American Institute of Architects publication that called the building “nationally significant’’ after its opening.

• It contains elements of design, detail, materials, or craftsmanship of outstanding quality or which represent a significant innovation or adaptation to the South Florida environment.

The report cites the “outstanding quality’’ of design, materials and elements like those cited above, as well as the lobby and second-story business floor finishes of marble, teak, glass and steel. “Doorframes, doors, signage, air vents, electrical outlets and other features were all custom designed,’’ the report notes. It also cites the building’s hurricane-resistant design, an innovation at a time when it was not required by code, including thousands of pilings driven deep into bedrock.

DHT’s application earlier this year set off the most intense skirmish over historic preservation in Miami in recent years. It pits a band of preservationists, architects, academics and historians against a wealthy corporation and a downtown establishment that, although wary of casino gambling, is eager to see redevelopment of the Herald site, most of which consists of parking lots.

Some critics have said DHT is only trying to block gambling. But under laws governing historic preservation, designation does not affect how the building is used. So long as its exterior shell is preserved, Genting could add to the building or put a tower over it, and the company would remain free to erect new buildings on the balance of its property.

The battle is playing out on the leading edge of national preservation efforts, which are increasingly focused on salvaging important mid-20th Century Modernist buildings whose often-severe design, like the Herald building’s, is not broadly popular and considered “ugly’’ by many.

To supporters of designation, who say their case is overwhelming, it’s also a test of the resolve of the city’s preservation board. In October, the board voted narrowly, by a 6-4 margin, to consider the building for designation. The board has the final say, though a designation can be appealed to the Miami City Commission — something Genting is widely expected to do if designation were to be approved Monday.

Critics say the city has been too willing to allow demolition of historic buildings for promised new development that sometimes fails to materialize, especially in the Omni and Edgewater neighborhoods around the Herald building. Large swaths of those areas have been vacant for years because of the widespread destruction of some of the city’s original and most distinct buildings, including Mediterranean Revival commercial blocks and homes.

In contrast, they say, Miami Beach has attracted billions of dollars in investment by preserving its historic stock of buildings, at least along the Atlantic shoreline, while allowing developers to add substantial towers and new wings to the properties. Many of those were once as unpopular as the Herald building is for some today.

The Beach has in recent years designated MiMo-centric historic districts that include massive hotel properties, including the storied — and once derided — Fontainebleau Hotel.

If the Herald building were on the Beach, preservationists say, it would almost certainly win designation today.

“When the fight started over Art Deco in the 1970s, people thought it was ugly. Now it’s beloved,’’ said Charles Urstadt, chairman of the Miami Design Preservation League, which is credited with saving what is now South Beach and is supporting designation of the Herald building. “It’s an economic engine of Miami Beach. To call the Herald building ugly is not part of the decision to be made. Ugly or beauty is not part of it. It’s not a matter of popularity.

“There is no question in anybody’s mind that the Herald building has both architectural merit and historic merit. The criteria are very clear and this certainly meets it.’’

That’s not to say there is complete agreement over the Herald building even among preservationists and fans of Modern design. Some prominent preservationists, including those attempting to save the Miami Marine Stadium, have conspicuously stayed out of the fight.

Design-wise, said University of Miami architecture professor Jean-Francois LeJeune, he finds the building to be a “big box’’ in spite of some indisputably good elements, including the futuristic, soaring porte-cochere entryway and the metallic screens over the windows that are typical of MiMo.

But even he concedes judgment of the building would be favorable on the Beach, where he sits on the planning board.

“If it were the Beach, it would be a different case,’’ he said.

Still, most local preservation groups have rallied to DHT’s side, including Coral Gables’s historic preservation board, widely regarded as a conservative panel concerned with traditional architecture. So have architecture and preservation professors at the University of Florida and Florida International, and the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation, whose vice president, West Palm Beach architect Rick Gonzalez, will testify in favor of designation on Monday.

“There are people flying in from all over the state to talk about this. This is getting people’s attention. We’re at a crossroads here, and we have to start deciding whether we reuse our buildings or do we throw them away,’’ said Gonzalez, the trust’s incoming president, comparing the Herald’s potential for reuse to the historic church at the center of the City Place redevelopment in West Palm Beach.

“I remember the arguments — oh, it’s an elephant,” he said of the old church. “Today it anchors a half-billion dollar urban renewal project, one of the most successful in the country. Look at the Fontainebleau. They did a two-billion dollar project next to it. So why can’t the Miami Herald building be the anchor of an entertainment resort, casinos or no casinos?’’