As the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation gathers dozens of public officials, activists, historians and architects from across the state for a Miami-centric conference in the Omni area this week, organizers hope to broadcast a pointed message: Saving significant architecture and places is not only good, but good business.
Tours, panels, workshops and events during the three-day Historic Places/Modern Spaces conference, which opens Thursday, aim to highlight how preservationists in a series of closely fought battles over more than 30 years managed to save a slew of key buildings like the Freedom Tower and the Biltmore Hotel, brought South Beach back from the dead, and dramatically resuscitated Miami’s once-reeling Upper East Side — meaning they can reasonably claim major credit for helping turn the city from basket case into one of the world’s hottest places.
The key to that success, they say, has been the carefully regulated blend of new and distinctive historic architecture, made possible by preservation laws, that draws locals and visitors, not to mention investors, in droves.
Yet a sweeping new wave of development, wavering political support and a lack of public appreciation for its obvious successes threatens the future of preservation across Miami-Dade County at a time when significant buildings and neighborhoods dating to the mid-20th century are becoming eligible for historic designation, and much of older signature neighborhoods like Little Havana still lack protection, organizers say.
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“The big impetus in making the Trust come to Miami is that we have had so much controversy and difficulty in preserving historic buildings with the tidal wave of new development,” said Becky Roper Matkov, the conference co-chair and recently retired director of Dade Heritage Trust. “We wanted to push the theme that historic places can exist in modern spaces and should be incorporated into the texture of all the new that is going on in Miami.”
The crux of the issue will be immediately clear to attendees who have not seen the city for a few years.
New residential towers have sprung up immediately to the north of the conference’s Biscayne Bay Marriott headquarters, along Edgewater, erasing nearly all traces of one of the city’s earliest suburbs, while the high-rise Brickell redevelopment behemoth spreads west into Little Havana, raising fears of demolition and gentrification. Across Biscayne Bay, the Miami Beach colossus shows no sign of slowing down, with every empty square foot of land getting filled in — and even notable homes and buildings in that bastion of historic preservation getting sacrificed for mega mansions and starchitect condos.
A glance through the conference agenda, organizers say, outlines a story that could be called the Miami paradox: Saving historic areas like South Beach’s Art Deco District created the foundation for both Miami and Miami Beach’s turnaround, yet the big-money development that followed now threatens some of the historic buildings and neighborhoods that distinguish the cities from other places.
“Preservation is under siege all over,” said Miami historian Arva Moore Parks, a Trust board member and conference co-chair. “What I want most of all is to show off Miami, especially to people who may think there’s not much worth saving here. But we also need to educate the public about preservation and what it means. There is not a single place where preservation has been done locally that has not been a tremendous economic success. But people seem to forget that.”
The conference, which last came to Miami in 1997, aims to serve as a big reminder. The 200 expected attendees will have a chance to see established successes such as the Art Deco District. the Freedom Tower and Miami’s first historic district, the Morningside neighborhood, which launched the Upper East Side revival. They can also tour some of the newest, including the resurgent Miami Modern, or MiMo, historic district that runs along Biscayne Boulevard in the Upper East Side, and hear from developer Avra Jain, who has leveraged the sale of air rights to finance multimillion-dollar renovations of the whimsical Vagabond Motel and half a dozen other MiMo motels.
One tour on Friday will take visitors to see a newly minted success story: The newly rebuilt Hampton House in Brownsville, a mid-century hotel and gathering spot for middle-class African Americans, leaders such as Martin Luther King and celebrities like Muhammad Ali, will formally reopen that morning as a community center, event space and museum. One room is dedicated to King and has been furnished as it was when he frequented the hotel.
And a panel will explore what could be one of preservationists’ biggest recent wins: a mediated agreement that will incorporate features of an ancient Tequesta Indian village and remnants of early Miami into a downtown mixed-use tower that was redesigned to preserve and exhibit them.
The conference will culminate Friday in a preservation awards ceremony at one of Miami’s most spectacular interior spaces, the auditorium at the recently and lavishly restored Miami High School. The 5:30 p.m. ceremony is free and open to the public.
Attendees will also explore several conundrums: One workshop will focus on the threat to historic places posed by sea-level rise. Another will look at ways to preserve and expand the deteriorated 1928 Dade County Courthouse, a key architectural and historic landmark that court administrators want to replace. A tour will take attendees to Bay Harbor Islands’ East Island, a treasure trove of MiMo residential buildings where town leaders have encouraged extensive demolition and redevelopment while stymieing preservation efforts.
And another tour will stop in East Little Havana, a neighborhood up for a controversial upzoning where preservationists in response rallied successfully for the creation of a small new historic district. On Tuesday, the city preservation board approved an expansion of the River View Historic District that activists had also pushed for.