Miami-Dade County

Yes, there was an airport on the Miami waterfront. And the terminal still exists

A plane sits behind the Pan Am terminal at Dinner Key in the early years.
A plane sits behind the Pan Am terminal at Dinner Key in the early years. Miami Herald File/courtesy of Pan American World Airways, Inc. Records Special Collections, University of Miami Libraries

Today it’s City Hall. But 85 years ago, a new world opened up to Miami.

On March, 25, 1934, the Pan Am seaplane terminal made its debut at Dinner Key.

For more than 10 years, travelers poured into the building as they arrived and departed from the waterfront. The city eventually bought the property and made it into City Hall.

A renovation returned some of the history to the building at 3500 Pan American Dr.

Let’s go back in time through the Miami Herald archives to see what it was like when air travel started at sea.

An old boat sits next to a historic building at Dinner Key, near Miami City Hall. The building was once a Pan Am hanger during the 1940s. Miami Herald File


Published Oct. 28, 2006

On a gloomy Miami afternoon, the sails of the boats docked at Dinner Key flap in the breeze. The palm trees around the area sway with the shifting wind and the sky looks as if it will open up for a rainy season deluge.

The brightest object in view is Miami City Hall. The brilliant white building gleams in all its Art Deco glory, symbolizing Miami’s political and aviation history.

Experts say the building has changed little since it was owned by Pan American Airways in the 1930s.

“It has kept the flavor of the Pan Am days,” said author and historian Arva Moore Parks.

Miami Mayor C.H. Reeder broke ground in 1931 on the building that would eventually house what was one of the world’s largest airline terminals and seaplane bases, Dinner Key Terminal and Airport. But its history dates back much earlier, to 1917, when the U.S. Navy fortified the area through dredging.

According to Parks, residents of Coconut Grove were none too happy with this use of their land, forcing the Navy to relocate to Chapman Field in 1919.

“Aviation was in its infancy. You can imagine what airplanes sounded like in 1917,” Parks said.


Between world wars, Pan Am used the airport for takeoffs and landings of its famous flying boats, the Clippers, eventually leading to the groundbreaking and construction of the airport. The Navy used the facility during World War II.

But when land-based aircraft and more functional airports worldwide made Dinner Key’s amphibious capabilities obsolete, the airport became a piece of aviation history. The last scheduled flight out of the airport was on Aug. 9, 1945.

The city of Miami purchased the land and the building from Pan Am in 1946 and converted the terminal into City Hall in 1954.

Substantial renovations took place again in 2003, with architect Rich Heisenbottle, out of respect for the history of the building, taking care to maintain its original appearance. The challenge was to make the building modern without destroying the features that make it a landmark of aviation history.

“It really looks fabulous. I was proud of how we were able to integrate modern technology and still maintain the historical appearance,” Heisenbottle said.

“This is a great, historic building that . . . really speaks to the future of Miami in the same way that it speaks to Miami’s past,” he said. “It’s a vibrant, exciting and open place for government to take place in a city that is now vibrant and exciting as well.”

Parks is happy that the restoration work was done. “I think it’s wonderful that it has been restored,” she said. “They’ve brought back the Pan Am days.”

A Pan Am plane returns to the water for a 70th anniversary party at Miami City Hall, original site of Pan Am’s air base. They brought in a Grumman Mallard seaplane, which landed nearby, attracting the attention of boaters, including this kayaker. Chuck Fadely Miami Herald File


Published Jan, 9, 1991

On Oct. 28, 1927, a small wood-and-fabric plane rumbled down a dirt runway in Key West, lifted off and headed for Havana. It was the first scheduled international flight of a U.S. airline. And it was made by a fledging firm called Pan American Airways.

In the ensuing 63 years, Pan Am became one of the world’s best-known corporate names and a global symbol of the American love of discovery and exploration. This is a company whose technical adviser was Charles Lindbergh.

Though it has long been headquartered in New York City, its links to South Florida, particularly Miami, are strong. Indeed, some chroniclers say the history of Pan Am and that of modern Miami are inseparable.

Its old terminal on Dinner Key, after all, is now Miami City Hall.

“Its ties are so important here,” says Arva Parks, the Miami historian. “It was the first one who made us realize our potential as a gateway, as far as I’m concerned.”

Pan Am today is a passenger airline — albeit a troubled one. But it was founded to deliver the mail.

Air travel in the early days was a little too adventurous for the average consumer. Although Flying Down to Rio became a famous movie in 1933, in reality, the trip would have taken seven days at that time, and been bumpy enough to knock the fruit off Carmen Miranda’s head.

The visionary of Pan Am was Juan Trippe, a wealthy New Englander. After running a rich man’s charter service on Long Island, he came to Florida in the 1920s.

With the help of two wealthy friends — John Hambleton and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney — he launched Aviation Corp. of America.

They suffered a quick setback.

The U.S. Post Office awarded the lucrative Havana mail route to another company. Undaunted, Trippe’s group flew to Havana and obtained exclusive landing rights from Cuban President Gerardo Machado.

The winner of the postal contract — a worthless piece of paper without Havana landing rights — was forced to merge. Trippe took control of the new organization.

“Trippe embarked on a career that was, within barely a single decade, to build on a 90-mile route to Cuba to fashion the largest and most influential airline in the world,” according to R.E.G. Davies, author of Pan Am: An Airline and Its Aircraft.

Pan Am’s Miami operations were focused on Dinner Key, off Coconut Grove. In World War I the tiny island was a training base for the U.S. Navy and Marines.

The planes were noisy and dirty and Grove residents hated them, according to Lawrence Mahoney, Miami author of “The Early Birds,” a history of Pan Am’s years on Dinner Key.

After the war the military left and locals vowed to prevent a return. Local aviation was largely boot-leggers flying in “demon rum” from The Bahamas — this was Prohibition.

By the late 1920s, however, private aviation was being born, Pan Am was at the forefront of the movement, and its operations were centered on Dinner Key. Locals didn’t mind — it had a glamour that military maneuvers lacked.

By the 1930s Pan Am was bringing celebrities like Katharine Hepburn, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, and British royalty to Dinner Key.

Pan Am’s “flying boats,” or seaplanes, were making Miami the hub of air service to the Caribbean, Central and South America and Africa.

After Pan Am inaugurated service to Asia, Humphrey Bogart played Capt. Ed Musick in the film, The China Clipper.

“The clipper ships of the 1930s made it the glamorous airline,” says Warren J. Brown, a flight surgeon and author of “Florida’s Aviation History: The First One Hundred Years.”

“People would go down to Dinner Key by the thousands just to watch them land and take off.”

But as the airline increasingly relied on land planes, its ties to Dinner Key withered.

Pan Am built an airport on 36th Street, and in 1945 it sold Dinner Key to Miami. The Pan Am field eventually became Miami International.

Immediately after World War II, Pan Am became America’s de facto flagship carrier. By then serving 62 countries, it became the chosen airline for the state department, according to “The Early Birds,” a history of the airline by Miami writer Lawrence Mahoney.

Nevertheless, by the 1960s the company was suffering. Plentiful competition and a mounting debt load forced Pan Am to sell assets such as its New York City headquarters building, built atop Grand Central Station.

In 1980, it merged with Miami’s National Airlines — a disastrous venture that hastened its decline.

“I think they peaked when they bought National,” says Brown, the author. “Since then it’s been all downhill.”

The cityy of Miami and The Dade Heritage Trust held a restoration celebration at Miami City Hall, 3500 Pan American Drive. Built originally in 1934 as the Pan American Seaplane Base and Terminal, it has been restored to its original splendor. Felipe Goncalves, left, and Carolyn Klepser, take a closer look at the entrance with its compass detail above and inlaid terrazzo world map on the floor. MARICE COHN BAND Miami Herald File



The distinctive 1931 building now well known as Miami City Hall had previous lives: first as Pan American Airline’s Dinner Key Terminal and then as Jackie Heller’s Dinner Key Terrace restaurant.

Designed in a Streamline Moderne architectural style, the former Pan Am terminal was converted to City Hall in 1954, when the city removed the huge globe from the middle of the building and gave it to the Museum of Science.

The building was listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Miami City Hall. Miami Herald File



With much fanfare, Miami city officials on Tuesday celebrated the completion of the long-anticipated restoration of City Hall, which began last year as a small project to replace lighting and sound equipment and grew into a $1.6 million venture.

Beneath a red-and-white tent, more than 200 people — a Who’s Who of Miami politics — gathered on the building’s second-floor terrace to toast the end of the renovation effort, more than five months after it was scheduled to be completed.

When commissioners hold their first meeting in the new chambers Thursday, they will be seated in a building again reflecting its 1930s heyday as a seaplane terminal, before plaster and acoustic tile masked the historic designs etched on the ceilings.

The building, 3500 Pan American Dr., opened in 1934 as a transportation hub for Pan American World Airways.

“Nothing makes a preservationist happier than to see an old building filled with memories and architectural treasures be reused and reloved,” said Becky Roper Matkov, executive director of Dade Heritage Trust, which hosted the event with the City of Miami.

Miami City Hall, 3500 Pan American Drive, underwent a renovation that brought the lobby and commission chambers back to the glorious look of the 1930s, when it was a seaplane terminal for Pan American Airways. This detail in the entranceway of the building is original and was a surprise discovery when some acoustic tiles were removed. MARICE COHN BAND Miami Herald File

The project began as a simple sound-and-light upgrade last August but became a massive historic preservation effort after workers discovered 1950s-era murals depicting the history of flight, from Leonardo Da Vinci’s Renaissance glider to Clipper planes flown by Pan Am.

The original upgrade was supposed to last about a month, but the painstaking preservation effort delayed the project for months — and bumped up the tab from $600,000 to $1.6 million.

City engagements, from city commission meetings to scores of board and community meetings, had to be held at various venues throughout the city during the building’s restoration.

The renovation includes a new wooden dais, an overhaul of the general seating and an upgrade to comply with fire-safety regulations and disabled-accessibility requirements, said Miami Communications Director Carlos McDonald, who oversaw the restoration.

Miami Mayor Manny Diaz said while the project lasted much longer than anticipated, the wait was worthwhile.

“This preserves the heritage and history of Miami,” Diaz said.