Miami-Dade County

Miami Herald’s iconic building is history

The last structure is being demolished at the former Miami Herald plant site on Tuesday, March 3, 2015.
The last structure is being demolished at the former Miami Herald plant site on Tuesday, March 3, 2015. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

She's gone.

By the time the last girder was down on Tuesday, there was nothing but blue sky where the Miami Herald’s hulking headquarters stood for half a century. As if she’d never been there at all.

She was the grande dame on Miami's bayfront when they started taking her down, chunk by chunk, in a strange, slow-motion demolition that took a full year and a half.

But then she was built to be nearly indestructible, to keep the presses running even after a hit from the strongest of hurricanes, and, not incidentally, to remind everyone in its vicinity — and who could miss its commanding presence and the purplish nighttime glow of its massive neon letters suspended over Biscayne Bay? — of the power of those presses in the affairs of the city.

What will take the place of her absence is anyone’s guess. The property’s new owner, the Malaysian Genting casino giant whose plans for a gargantuan gambling resort on the site have so far come to naught, has offered no alternative blueprint.

For now, with the noise and thick clouds of dust from the demolition having subsided, neighbors can enjoy the dead quiet and the unobstructed vista and dream of the day when Genting, or a successor, builds a long-promised baywalk so they may finally go for a stroll along the water’s edge.

But some neighbors would rather not have to wait too long. Mike Eidson, chairman of the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, saying he’s not heard a word from Genting in a while, complains the demolition has made “the whole neighborhood seem blighted.”

After dark, Eidson said, when the unlit 12-acre Genting property is pitch black, it presents a “gloomy” prospect right across Bayshore Drive for patrons leaving the John S. and James L. Knight Concert Hall, named after the brothers who built the old Herald building and founded the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain, which donated the land for the hall.

“You leave the Arsht Center and walk into a black hole,” Eidson said. “Genting has all this property and we have no idea what they’re doing. There’s nobody to talk to. They had a guy named Goode. He’s gone. They had another guy named Thompson. I believe he’s gone, too.”

Eidson has a simple request for Genting:

“We’d like to have a pretty park there. A nice, healthy site that has access to the bay. Not just a bare lot. That’s not helping anybody. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable request. Go ahead and make it inviting while you decide what you’re going to do.”

Speculation has it that Genting, which paid $236 million for the Herald property in 2011, a price that now seems a bargain, might choose to flip the land for a tidy profit.

Whatever does eventually get built there, and something will, it’s safe to say it won’t embody Miami’s modern history in the close way the old Herald building did.

When the doors opened in 1963, she was a harbinger of Miami’s global future, the largest and most advanced commercial building in Florida — far bigger, in fact, than anything a middling, mid-sized newspaper in a middling, mid-sized city really needed. But the visionary Knight brothers expected growth. Massive growth. And they were right.

Her architecure, by the noted Chicagoan Sigurd Naess, was forward-looking, a marriage of industrial functionality and the tropical modernism of the time — now labeled Miami Modern, or MiMo — that was clearly meant to impress. Though never beloved by the public — comparisons to a tissue box or an egg carton were typical — the building gained critical acceptance, even praise, as a MiMo landmark in her latter years.

Books and architectural guides would eventually lavish attention on its sheer muscularity, its futuristic entryway with soaring pylons holding up a canopy pierced by glass bubbles, and a dramatic lobby behind double-height steel-and-glass walls and lined with marble and teak. Escalators led up to a soaring Mad Men-style business floor designed to bowl visitors over.

Up in the fifth-floor newsroom, with its panoramic views of the bay and Miami Beach, the newspaper’s reporters and editors held enviable front-and-center seats to the city’s bumpy, breathtaking transformation from Southern burgh and over-the-hill resort to international hotspot, collecting a clutch of Pulitzers along the way.

From its power perch at One Herald Plaza — known alternately to its staff as The Mothership — the newspaper expanded its reach and reputation around the world, with news bureaus across Florida from Key West to Naples, Orlando and Tallahassee, nationally in Atlanta and New York, and abroad in Berlin, Jerusalem, Bogota, Managua and Beijing. Not to mention Fort Lauderdale, Tamarac, Homestead and Miami Beach.

There was even, briefly, an outpost in Los Angeles, where a young features writer somehow managed to get himself sent as Hollywood correspondent. Sometime after that, Ryan Murphy went on to bigger things, writing and producing Nip Tuck, Glee and American Horror Story.

And power perch the building was, make no mistake. Until well into the 1980s and ’90s, the co-captains of Miami helped steer the city’s course from the fifth-floor corner publisher’s office and the sixth-floor headquarters of the Knight, later Knight-Ridder, newspaper chain, and not just through the traditional means of editorials, investigations and news stories.

Knight-Ridder chairman Alvah Chapman, frustrated over fumbling local governance, convened a discreet panel of civic and business leaders, among them the newspaper’s publisher, that functioned as a shadow county government, setting agendas for public officials and influencing how they would tackle social and economic issues. The secretive panel, dubbed “the non-group,” had operated for years, its existence unknown to most Miamians, including the county mayor and the newspaper’s staff and editors, when it was exposed in the pages of the Herald in 1985.

The building’s fortress-like construction proved its worth when Hurricane Andrew swept through the city in 1992, flattening the county’s southern half and rendering tens of thousands homeless. The presses never stopped.

Reporters who had taken shelter in the building during the storm fanned out at dawn to bring back the first news of the devastation. For weeks after, the newspaper, in particular its special help pages, proved a lifeline to thousands of Miamians with no power, no phone and no access to information. Chapman again convened a civic group that helped guide the rebuilding of South Miami-Dade.

But in spite of modernization, including new presses and newsroom revamps designed to accommodate fiber-optic cables and computers, the foundations of the industry were eroding, hastening the impregnable building’s eventual demise.

After Knight-Ridder decamped for California, home of the Ridder half of the equation, the sixth floor remained largely vacant for years. The loss of advertising revenue to the Internet, the Great Recession and the takeover of Knight-Ridder by another California concern, the McClatchy Company, which took on enormous debt to make the acquisition just as the industry and the economy collapsed, conspired to do her in.

As bureaus shuttered and the staff was cut, the newspaper had no more need of a Mothership. The company had been peddling its vast parking lots for years, all the while insisting the building was not for sale. But when Genting made an offer it could not resist, McClatchy took the money. The Herald got two years rent-free to move out.

Obeying the new reality for the newspaper industry, the Herald moved its smaller staff from the center of things to the suburbs of Doral.

In the end, history could not save the building the Herald left behind.

Preservationists mounted a spirited campaign to save the building from the wrecker. It was no use. The city historic preservation board, after a ferocious public hearing that had Genting’s architect, Bernardo Fort-Brescia, shouting at preservationists, narrowly defeated activists’ request to have her designated a historic landmark.

When Genting took over, the first thing it did was knock down her most prominent architectural feature: within days, down came the magnificent porte cochere, as if to say, nothing left to save now.

The newspaper kept just two things from its home of 50 years — two giant neon Gothic letters from its iconic land side, an “M’ and an “H.”

The letters are in a warehouse.

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