Miami architect Kenneth Treister’s work was, inarguably, one-of-a-kind.
From the Gaudí-esque curlicues of the original Mayfair in the Grove to the “mushroom” shelters at Virrick Park in the West Grove and the agonized figures at the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach, Treister’s work combined early and late-modern architecture with art and sculpture and the lush subtropical South Florida landscape in a way few of his peers ever attempted.
The question now is this: Was Treister’s unique aesthetic, which helped redefine Coconut Grove in the 1970s and ’80s, sufficiently valuable and important to justify saving one of a handful of his signature buildings from a developer’s wrecking ball?
That’s the hot conundrum facing Miami’s historic-preservation board. On Tuesday, the board is scheduled to hear a request for historic designation for Treister’s Office in the Grove, a 10-story building mounted over a grassy mound that’s anchored a prominent corner on South Bayshore Drive since 1973. The CEO of an investment group that purchased the building says he may want to redevelop the one-acre property, which is now surrounded by massive, glassy new condo towers, and is strenuously opposing designation.
Some leading Miami architects, preservationists and critics — including Treister, now 87 and retired — contend the office building is one of the architect’s prime designs, and a significant landmark eminently deserving of designation. Several have signed onto a pro-designation petition that’s collected more than 300 names, including that of Miami billionaire businessman and art collector Norman Braman.
Treister’s building, wrote Miami architect Rony Mateu on the online petition, “has understated elegance and timeless beauty.”
“It is this type of architectural work that should be celebrated, not replaced,” he wrote.
Added architect Bernard Zyscovich: “As the Grove goes through its current metamorphosis it becomes ever more important to protect important architecture that represents its era.”
The plea has resonated outside Miami. The editor of The Architect’s Newspaper, a national publication based in New York City, wrote a column in support of designation that concluded: “It would be a tragedy if it is left to the fate of developers.”
But a consultant for building owner Mast Capital, noted preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle, argues that Treister’s design doesn’t meet the high bar for designation.
“The building is not without merit. It’s a good, clean building,” Heisenbottle said in an interview. “But it has to rise above that.”
The building features a pentagonal low-rise in a mid-century style known as Brutalism for its use of raw concrete. It rises on stilts over a base consisting of a grassy berm and a rough-textured concrete wall that conceals three levels of parking — University of Miami architecture professor Jean-Francois LeJeune, who wrote the designation petition, says Office in the Grove was among the first in Miami to eschew a surface lot and hide parked cars from the view of passers-by, something now required by zoning rules.
The base, in contrast to the austere tower exterior, has embellishments reminiscent of the work of the great Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí and American modern master Frank Lloyd Wright, including an embossed banyan tree at the wall’s prow-like point, at the corner of South Bayshore and Southwest 27th Avenue. The building’s lobby and elevator landings were richly decorated with depictions of Everglades flora and fauna, including brass elevator doors with scenes of herons and marshes, though most of the artwork has been removed or plastered over by current and previous owners.
The designation application, submitted by the local chapter of Docomomo, an international group that advocates for the preservation of imperiled Modernist architecture, has split Miami’s preservation and architectural community.
While Docomomo and the Miami Design Preservation League are backing designation, another leading group, Dade Heritage Trust, has backed away from it. After DHT initially placed the Treister building on its list of 11 most endangered historic sites in Miami, its board this week voted by a wide margin not to support designation, arguing Treister’s building is not sufficiently exceptional. The city’s new preservation officer, Warren Adams, issued a similar opinion.
And so do Mast Capital’s high-powered consultants, who in addition to Heisenbottle include architect Terry Riley, former director of what’s now the Perez Art Museum Miami and former architecture curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Heisenbottle, who is responsible for much-praised restorations at the Olympia Theater in downtown Miami and Miami City Hall and is now working on a restoration plan for the Miami Marine Stadium, has been in this position before: He helped defeat DHT’s effort to win historic designation for the Miami Herald building downtown. At the time, Heisenbottle was working as a consultant to Genting, the gambling giant that bought the bayfront property six years ago for a casino redevelopment that has yet to happen.
The crux of the issue: At 44 years, Office in Grove falls short of the 50-year standard for normal consideration under Miami’s preservation ordinance. To win designation, the ordinance requires that a building under 50 demonstrate “exceptional” quality — something Heisenbottle says Treister’s design lacks.
The standard, he said, is comparison to Miami buildings of similar vintage, such as the Brutalist Marine Stadium and the tropical-modern Bacardi headquarters complex on Biscayne Boulevard, both widely recognized architectural masterpieces that won designation before turning 50. Another suitable comparison would be to the Brutalist original buildings at Miami Dade College’s north and south campuses, which Heisenbottle says are not designated but should be.
“Office in the Grove totally pales by comparison,” Heisenbottle said.
Moreover, he argued, Treister’s building is a “stylistically confused” mix of architectural tendencies that won no big awards and carried little architectural influence locally.
“It is, in my view, an amalgamation of styles to the extent that I’m not sure he knew what he wanted the building to be,” Heisenbottle said.
By contrast, he added, Treister’s Holocaust Memorial is “his masterpiece.” He said the architect has also made a significant contribution to the field through the 10 books of photography and architecture he has published.
But University of Miami architecture professor Jean-Francois LeJeune, who wrote the Docomomo designation application, said Heisenbottle is misapplying the standard. Office in the Grove is a significantly different type of building from the Marine Stadium, which preceded the Treister design by a decade, he noted.
The early 1970s produced few significant buildings in Miami, and Treister’s is one, LeJeune said. Among the few comparable buildings are the widely disliked Brutalist tower at the entrance to Calle Ocho that’s just been spiffed up and renovated by Miami Dade College for its InterAmerican campus, and the original Brutalist 1111 Lincoln Road office tower in Miami Beach that was more recently expanded by the addition of an acclaimed parking garage by the famed Swiss firm of Herzog & DeMeuron, he said.
Office in the Grove, which is firmly rooted in and inspired by the Grove, is superior to both of those ’70s buildings, LeJeune said. It was also historically important because it was among the first to introduce a modern office environment to the Grove’s Bohemian lifestyle and jungle-like, waterfront environment, he argued.
The design adapted the Brutalist style to the Grove environment, using precast panels to protect its windows from sun and storms, and making a notch with big windows in the structure so that every elevator landing has panoramic views of Biscayne Bay and Dinner Key, he said.
“People immediately identify it,” he said. “It is a Brutalist building with Treister’s own style. He applies in a light touch a lot of his ideas. A very special way of treating concrete. Well-proportioned and sustainable.
“What other buildings are so well adapted to the site,” LeJeune said, “to its topography and to the climate? And demonstrate a masterful use of concrete construction within the Brutalist movement? What I say is, give us another building that does it better than that one. I have not found one that did it as well.”
But Treister and his buildings were long controversial in the Grove, where some residents blamed him for introducing an incongruous scale and modern style of design that, in the hands of other developers eventually came to supplant the former village’s traditional style and feel.
A graduate of the University of Florida architecture school who also trained as a sculptor and artist, Treister acted as both architect and developer, as was the case with Office in the Grove and his subsequent Mayfair Hotel and mall, a luxury multi-block project that many critics complain put an end to the village’s Bohemian environment. But the Mayfair center’s design, in which Treister also introduced elements of Maya and Asian design, both influences on his beloved Wright, also won plaudits.
Treister garnered early recognition for his expressionistic design for the Gumenik Chapel at Temple Israel in Miami, and later won two high honors: He was elected a fellow of the American Institute of Architects by his peers, and won the gold medal in 2013 from the organization’s Florida chapter.
The Mayfair shopping mall eventually failed, and was later drastically bowdlerized, though the hotel maintains much of its original architectural panache. Treister says he loved the Grove, where he lived for decades in a home of his own design, and tried to reflect its environment and tradition in his designs.
“Most architects today build objects. They’re one-dimensional,” he said in an interview from his home in Winter Haven in Central Florida. “What I’ve done in all my career is integrate art and architecture and landscape, and the community.”
Treister, who also designed some 35 houses, mostly in and around the Grove, has been quietly backing the Docomomo effort because, he says, the Office in the Grove is one of the last of his designs that’s largely untouched, at least on the exterior.
“It’s tough in Miami. It’s always tearing down and rebuilding and tearing down and rebuilding,” he said. “This is an important building. It’s one of my last buildings that hasn’t been altered.
“More important,” he said, laughing, “It’s my wife’s favorite.”
This story was updated to correct the city in which Kenneth Treister now resides.