Miami’s towering tributes to Spain have become a city icon

The 255-foot Freedom Tower (left) was completed in 1925, months before the opening of the Biltmore. At right, the Alhambra in Coral Gables.
The 255-foot Freedom Tower (left) was completed in 1925, months before the opening of the Biltmore. At right, the Alhambra in Coral Gables. The Allen Morris Company

To those familiar with the Spanish town of Seville, the 12-foot weathervane above downtown Coral Gables is an unmistakable homage to the historic Spanish city long known as a center for trade, literature, architecture and of course, the flamenco.

Atop the high-rise Alhambra Towers office building, the female figure carrying a shaft of wheat, a helmet and a Christian cross is a replica of the bronze weathervane that has dominated the sky of Seville for more than four centuries. Still today, the Giraldillo, or Spinner, crowns the Giralda, the belltower of the Gothic Cathedral of Sevilla.

Built in 2002, Alhambra Towers is the latest in a series of South Florida tributes to one of Spain’s grandest cities. In the early 1920s, four towers were modeled after the Giralda. Two of them would later be torn down. The two that survived are national landmarks, the Biltmore Tower and the Freedom Tower.

An exhibition at the Coral Gables Museum showcases the Giralda’s influence on the South Florida skyline. “Creating the View, George Merrick and His Vision for Coral Gables” has been curated by Miami historian Arva Moore Parks, who is writing a biography of Coral Gables developer George Merrick.

Though Merrick never visited Spain, he was an avid reader of Washington Irving’s romantic journeys through the country’s southern region, says Parks, and dreamed of long streets of beautiful “castles in Spain.” His 1924 newspaper ad announcing the Biltmore, his signature hotel inspired by the Giralda’s design, promised “the most beautiful tower in Europe” would be reproduced in his new planned city.

An ad promoting the construction of tower in Coral Gables, Florida, similar to Seville’s Giralda. Archive/Miami Herald

Merrick had already envisioned other references to Spain — in an arched entrance to the new community and the city hall that would be completed in 1928. But the Giralda would be the centerpiece of the community “in recognition of the debt which America and Florida especially” owed to Christopher Columbus, read the ad.

In reality, the explorer who is credited with “discovering” the Americas never set foot in Florida. Columbus’ association with the Giralda was, however, real. Though much of his life remains a mystery, historians believe Columbus lived for some years in Seville, the city that became the main port linking the Old and the New Worlds in the 16th and 17th centuries.

By then, the tower had long been associated with Seville. Built in the late 12th century as a minaret for the main mosque of the city of Isbiliya during Spain’s Moorish period, the Giralda was converted to a bell tower for the mosque-turned-cathedral after the city was taken by the Christians in 1248 and renamed Seville.

In the late 16th century, architect Hernan Ruiz added an upper level with balconies and a belfry, creating a unique fusion of Moorish and Spanish Renaissance rchitecture. The Giraldillo was installed on its top in 1568 to represent “the triumph” of the Christian faith.

Some 350 years later, Merrick turned to the iconic Spanish tower for inspiration. He wasn’t alone; in the post World War I years, architects nationwide looked to European monuments for inspiration for lavish Beaux Arts and Mediterranean facades.

The 255-foot Freedom Tower, top left, was completed in 1925, months before the opening of the Biltmore. Above right, the Alhambra, and at left, the Roney Hotel in the 1930s. Perla Verdera The Allen Morris Company

As skyscrapers sprouted in cities across the land, the towering Giralda offered particular appeal. New York’s Madison Square Garden tower, Chicago’s Wrigley Building and the San Francisco Ferry Building all featured Giralda-esque lookouts.

The Spanish tower was both visually striking and relatively easy to replicate, explains Allan Shulman, an architect and associate professor at the University of Miami.

“Perhaps what is so effective about the Giralda is that it efficiently adds an iconic or monumental feature to an otherwise mid-rise building block,” Shulman says.

But perhaps no U.S. city had more “Giralda” towers in a single moment than Miami, says Parks, the historian.

Just two years after Merrick announced he would replicate the Spanish monument, four Giralda-inspired towers had been built in South Florida. Downtown Miami’s Freedom Tower, completed in 1925, was designed by the New York firm of Schultze and Weaver, which also designed the Biltmore Hotel, opened in 1926. That same year, the Roney Plaza opened in Miami Beach; it also featured a Shultze-and-Weaver-designed Giralda-inspired tower. During that same 1926 boom, the New York-based Fred F. French Cos. incorporated a similar tower into downtown Miami’s Everglades Hotel.

Unfortunately, says Parks, two of them — both part of luxurious hotels — were demolished with little opposition. The Roney was torn down in 1968, to be replaced by the Roney Apartments. At the Everglades, a television aerial replaced the tower in 1949; the hotel was later demolished in 2005. Like the Roney, a condo of the same name was built in its place.

The Biltmore and Freedom towers were saved from a similar fate only after preservationists intervened. Both are now protected as national historic landmarks.

The fifth Giralda to be built in South Florida, the West Tower of the Alhambra Towers, was built by the Allen Morris Co. in 2002. The idea, says Morris, was to “honor the vision and inspiration of George Merrick and Walter DeGarmo,” a 1920s architect whose work appears through South Florida.

The Giraldillo topping the West Tower was reproduced by the sculptor Gary Rager, of Rager Studios in Orlando. It is the only “Giralda” tower in South Florida crowned by the iconic Sevillian Spinner.

But the female statue does have another sister relatively nearby. Since 1634, the Giraldilla weathervane has guarded Havana Bay from a watchtower on The Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the Castle of the Royal Force. It, too, has become of the best-known symbols of Havana.

Seville in South Florida

Since the 1920s, five iconic buildings inspired by Seville’s Giralda have punctuated the South Florida skyline:

The Biltmore Tower

In 1924, Coral Gables developer George Merrick introduced the idea for a Giralda Tower in Miami; architect Martin Hampton, who had been to Spain, drew the initial design for the tower at Miami Biltmore Hotel, as it was known at the time. When the architectural firm of Schultze and Weaver replaced him, they retained some of Hampton’s architectural elements. The hotel opened with a private dinner on Jan. 15, 1926, with some 1,500 on hand to witness illumination of the 315-foot-high tower.

When World War II began, the Biltmore was converted to an Army hospital; later it became a Veterans’ hospital. In 1973 the city of Coral Gables acquired the building; it remained unoccupied for almost ten years. Citizens organized to save the landmark, and in 1987 it reopened as a luxury hotel. Three years later it closed again; in 1992 it was reopened under the management of Seaway Corp. The hotel, at 1200 Anastasia Ave., remains an emblem of Coral Gables.

The Freedom Tower

The 255-feet Freedom Tower was completed in 1925, months before the opening of the Biltmore, but architects Schultze and Weaver designed it after they planned the hotel. It was commissioned by Gov. James Cox, who had purchased the Miami Daily News and Metropolis, as a bayside landmark for the publication’s offices and printing plant. In 1957 the newspaper moved, and the Freedom Tower was used to process and serve Cuban refugees fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime, earning it the nickname as the “Southern Statue of Liberty.” After a series of owners, the tower was purchased in 1997 by Cuban exile leader Jorge Mas Canosa. Later it was purchased by The Terra Group and donated to Miami Dade College, which uses the building at 600 Biscayne Blvd. to house its Museum of Art + Design. Its weathervane is a model of a Spanish caravel.

The Everglades Hotel

Once the city’s largest and most luxurious hotel, the 16-story Everglades at 244 Biscayne Blvd. deteriorated sadly over the years and was imploded in January 2005. Pronounced as “majestic” when it opened in 1926, the hotel was leased by the Navy as officer living quarters during World War II. Shortly after the hotel was returned to civilian use, an antenna was placed atop it, and in 1949 WTVJ used it to make the first television transmissions in Miami.

The Roney Hotel

Just nine days after the Everglades Hotel opened, N. B.T. Roney launched his grand Roney Plaza located on Miami Beach at 23rd Street and the ocean. Desgined by Schultze and Weaver, the “pastel palace” also sported a Giralda tower. For many years it was a luxurious playground for the wealthy and famous, and remained the toniest haunt on Miami Beach’s hotel row until after World War II. After a series of owners, the hotel faded in the 50s and was torn down in 1968.

Alhambra Towers

The Alhambra Towers, 121 Alhambra Plaza, were completed in 2002 on the site previously occupied by First Presbyterian Church. Its developer, Allen Morris, and architects, ACi Inc., modeled the building after the Cathedral towers of Sevilla, Cordoba and Leon. The 295-feet West Tower – inspired by the Giralda — is crowned by a working weathervane that is a replica of ‘The Giraldillo.’