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Historic Hampton House Motel, part of Miami’s black history, breaks ground on restoration project

When Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title in Miami Beach in 1964, there were few public places where a black man, even a famous one, could go celebrate.

So Clay, who would soon become Muhammad Ali, took his friend and mentor Malcolm X to a celebration in Brownsville at his favorite hangout, the Hampton House Motel. It was the spot for Miami’s black movers and shakers during the last years of segregation, and the place where Martin Luther King Jr. held court with local civil rights leaders when he was in town.

Clay, who was living in Miami while training for the championship fight, usually ordered orange juice at the Hampton House’s famed jazz club. That night he had a generous bowl of ice cream to mark his big win.

Today, the place where Ali, King and celebrities like Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie Robinson, Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole slept, played, socialized or performed — along with thousands of more-ordinary people — is a roofless ruin, “just a frame being held up by some sticks,’’ in the words of Miami preservationist Enid Pinkney.

But that’s about to change.

After a decade of planning by Pinkney, other activists and Miami-Dade County officials, the Hampton House, among the most significant, still sort-of-standing places for a community whose iconic buildings have been largely wiped out, will be rebuilt to the hilt and reopened for a range of public uses, though not as a motel.

“We have waited a long time for this,’’ said a delighted Pinkney at a groundbreaking ceremony Thursday behind the Hampton House, 4200 NW 27th Ave.

The groundbreaking was symbolic, but a crew working for the contractor hired for the restoration, Link Construction Group, was already at work, cleaning up the site in preparation for the start of building within the next couple of weeks.

The historic motel’s two-story, 30,000-square-foot MiMo-style main building will be fully restored to its early ‘60s heyday, a $6 million endeavor funded mostly with proceeds from voter-approved county bonds. (The 12 apartment buildings behind it that were part of the motel were demolished and are being replaced by a privately developed affordable housing complex now under construction.)

The hotel reconstruction will put back what county project construction manager H. Patrick Brown called its “symbolic spaces’’ — several re-created guest rooms, including the “suite’’ that King is believed to have favored, which will be furnished in period stye and serve as a museum, as well as the café and restaurant space and the jazz club.

Preservationists rescued numerous items from the motel, including furniture, fixtures, railings and wall paneling that will be incorporated into the restored Hampton House, which the county purchased a decade ago to stave off its demolition.

One thing that won’t return: the swimming pool in which King was once photographed treading water in his swimsuit. The pool will be replaced by a shallow, decorative water feature.

Completion is scheduled for January 2015.

The nonprofit Historic Hampton House Community Trust will manage the building, which the organization hopes will be self-sustaining. It won’t operate as a motel, but Pinkney and her organization aim to find a restaurant operator, rent out the place for weddings and events, and lease office space in the building to local businesses.

They’re also working with a consultant who specializes in historic, or heritage, tourism, a rapidly growing segment, to draw visitors interested in exploring black history. One possibility the consultant has suggested is establishing a bed and breakfast in the building.

Though drawing visitors from far and wide may seem farfetched, the Hampton House did just that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, an era in which legal segregation meant blacks had few great options for dining, staying over or congregating — activities which Hampton House, whose restaurant had white tablecloths, offered in an upscale, modern setting. Dubbed the “Social Center for the South,’’ the motel drew visitors from “all over,’’ said pianist Richard Strachan, who led its house band for years.

For locals, it was the place to show up, dressed to the nines, on a weekend night — and after church on Sundays — to dine or listen to first-rate jazz and R’n’B. Some famous musicians stayed at the Hampton House while performing in Miami Beach, where blacks were not permitted to stay overnight. Often they were persuaded to sit in with the house band for after-hours jams, Strachan said.

Celebrities who frequented, performed in or came through the Hampton House, Strachan and others have said, included sports stars like boxer Joe Louis and Wimbledon champion Althea Gibson; jazz greats like Sarah Vaughan and brothers Nat and Julian “Cannonball’’ Adderley; chanteuse Nancy Wilson and rhythm and blues singer LaVern Baker, later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and, of course, the greatest of them all, boxer Clay/Ali.

“He loved the swimming pool, he loved the music and he loved the food,’’ Strachan said.

From a booth in the motel, legendary Miami disk jockey China Valles broadcast jazz over WMBM.

Built in 1953 for $1 million by a white couple, Harry and Florence Markowitz, the motel boasted terrazzo floors, wrought-iron rails and detailing, and the clean, rectilinear architecture today popularly prized as MiMo, for Miami Modern. It was designed by a young architect, Robert Karl Frese, who would later be responsible for dozens of motels around the southeast for clients like Days Inn and Holiday Inn.

Originally called the Booker Terrace, the motel took the place of legendary but faded Overtown clubs and hotels like the Sir John, which would soon fall victim to urban renewal along with nearly every other important building in the historic heart of Miami’s black community. It was re-baptized Hampton House after the Markowitzes expanded and renovated the motel around 1961. That renovation added the MiMo-style concrete screens on the front that give the building its signature look.

It wasn’t all fun, though. Local members of the Congress for Racial Equality, a key civil rights group, met every week at the Hampton House and convened with King when he visited. Videotapes survive of two press conferences King gave at the Hampton House, in 1963 and 1964. He also gave an early version of his famed “I Have a Dream’’ speech at the Hampton House, as he did elsewhere.

Ironically, the end of segregation was the beginning of the end for the Hampton House. With integration, blacks could, and did, go anywhere to dine and recreate. As business dwindled, it hung on, barely, until 1976, mostly on the strength of takeout liquor-store sales, Strachan recalled.

By the early 2000s the shuttered, dilapidated motel was headed for demolition when Pinkney and a group of activists launched a campaign to save it. The county’s historic preservation board declared the main building a protected landmark in 2002, both for its history and its distinctive architecture, and the county purchased the entire block, including the area where the affordable housing is being built, for around $500,000.

Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson adopted the motel renovation as a pet cause. When plans appeared to stall, in part because of delays within the county bureaucracy, Edmondson said she “just had to push it through.’’

Though it’s just a shell, the Hampton House is worth salvaging because of the important place it held in Miami’s history, and not just for African-Americans, said the county’s preservation director, Kathleen Kauffman Slesnick.

“It’s incredibly valuable to this community,’’ she said. “By bringing it back, you bring back history. It’s not the building’s fault that we let it get to this point.’’