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Miami science museum ponders future of iconic Pan Am globe

The interior of the Pan Am terminal, now Miami's City Hall, as it was in the mid 1930s. Crowds gathered to watch the planes, greet travelers, and marvel at the globe, made by Rand McNally.
The interior of the Pan Am terminal, now Miami's City Hall, as it was in the mid 1930s. Crowds gathered to watch the planes, greet travelers, and marvel at the globe, made by Rand McNally.

The giant, rotating globe of the world that for 55 years greeted visitors to the old Miami Museum of Science is one of the most recognizable historic artifacts in a young city without many relics — an iconic reminder of its halcyon early days of international flight.

But now that the museum has closed its old building for good, it’s in a bit of a quandary over the 6,500-pound painted steel globe, originally commissioned in the 1930s by pioneering Pan American Airways as the showstopping centerpiece of its landmark Dinner Key airboat terminal.

Museum administrators don’t quite know what to do with the cherished behemoth.

The globe, rescued by museum patrons six decades ago from the leaky storage shed where it sat rusting for nearly 10 years after the airline moved to what’s now Miami International Airport, was hoisted into its new South Miami Avenue home in 1960 while the building was still under construction, and before the roof went on.

That means taking it out now would require removing a chunk of the roof, then finding a new home that’s enclosed, air-conditioned and large enough — not to mention with a floor that’s strong enough — to hold the massive globe.

And that’s no simple, or inexpensive, proposition, museum officials say. Though things could change, they have no plans or funding right now to move the globe to the $300-million, high-tech new Frost Museum of Science they’re building on Biscayne Bay north of downtown Miami.

But, they say, they’re open to ideas.

“We didn’t realize how complicated it would be,” said museum director Gillian Thomas. “But we want to find a great home for it. We know it’s precious to the community.”

Thomas stresses there’s plenty of time to decide. The old museum’s lease with Miami-Dade County for the land at Vizcaya will run for 18 months after the institution moves into the new building next summer, and back-office staff will remain there until then.

“There’s no big rush,” she said. “We’ve got time to find the right solution.”

One possibility, she said: If a donor magically appeared tomorrow, the museum could build an air-conditioned glass cube for the globe in the open-air atrium of its new Museum Park building.

Other solutions might depend on what Miami-Dade, the museum’s landlord, decides to do with the old building, the subject of some dispute. Longstanding plans call for the building site to revert to Vizcaya, the James Deering palace museum also owned by the county, whose administrators want to tear it down and return the property to its original agricultural use. But some commissioners have been pushing to convert the land for recreational uses, and possibly keep the building.

If the old museum building is demolished, Thomas notes, that eliminates a big part of the cost of removing the globe. If the building stays, the globe could as well, she said.

There’s no shortage of other potential new owners, either, she said.

A group of former Pan Am employees that has been trying to build a museum would love to have it, Thomas said. It would also make a great addition to the HistoryMiami museum downtown, which has an extensive collection of Pan Am artifacts and paraphernalia in a warehouse off Interstate 95. There has even been informal talk of installing it in the vast lobby of County Hall, Thomas said.

Wherever it does end up, say Pan Am acolytes, preservationists and historians, the globe deserves a proper stage where Miamians can continue to admire it.

“It’s too important to let it go,” said Richard Heisenbottle, an architect specializing in historic preservation who designed the restoration of Pan Am’s Dinner Key terminal, which has served as Miami City Hall since 1954. “The challenge now is to find a great location for it, one where the public can continue to enjoy and learn from it.”

Ironically, he noted, the heavy, rounded foundation casing that originally held the globe is still in the basement, under the City Hall floor. But that’s an unlikely candidate for relocation — it’s now the middle of the commission chambers.

The globe marked the launch of Miami as a global city.

It was made by Rand McNally and installed in the center of Pan Am’s Art Deco terminal, then the largest and most modern marine air terminal in the world, which opened in 1934 at Dinner Key. Pan Am provided regular commercial passenger service — then a novelty — to Cuba and the Bahamas. Within a few years, Pan Am was flying to 32 destinations from Dinner Key, with its famed flying boats hopscotching across the Caribbean to Mexico and Central and South America and beyond.

Painted with the country names, geographical features, ocean depths and political boundaries then in existence, plus existing air routes, the Pan Am globe was an attraction even for people who did not mean to travel but were wowed by the new idea of flying to distant places around the world.

With a circumference of 31 feet, five inches, the globe was oriented so that its axis paralleled the earth’s actual axis, with its North Pole pointing to the North Star. It was one of several globes used by Pan Am, including one that Pan Am co-founder Juan Trippe kept in his office and is now at the Smithsonian Institution, said Doug Miller, webmaster for the Pan Am Historical Foundation, formed by former airline employees to document and preserve its history.

But the Dinner Key globe was the largest and grandest, he said.

“It was probably one of the most iconic symbols of Pan Am,” Miller said.

After World War II, after larger, faster and more efficient commercial aircraft that took off from land superseded the seaplanes, Pan Am closed the terminal in 1946 and moved operations to new headquarters at Northwest 36th Street, Miller said. The globe was supposed to be reinstalled there, some historic documents suggest, but that never happened. It was removed in 1951 from Dinner Key, before the old terminal was converted for use as Miami’s city hall.

By the time the globe came to the science museum, it was badly corroded, Thomas and others say. A museum patron underwrote a $4,000 cleanup and fresh paint job. It was repainted twice more, the second time replacing the dated 1930s look, place names and lettering — including seas painted black, the custom in those days — with a bright topographic representation of the earth.

In 2012, with a $30,000 grant from American Express, conservators painstakingly restored the globe to its historic 1930s look.

Over the decades, tens of thousands of children and adults have posed in front of the globe at the science museum, forming a part of most Miamians’ collective memory, historian Paul George said. Now he hopes it won’t be forgotten or left behind.

“It’s amazing, and so great, that it somehow wasn’t lost,” George said. “It was really something for people to see. Boy, that was an attraction.”

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