But … but … but it doesn’t have to be Christopher Columbus. That’s how I said it. Sputtering with frustration. Thinking about the very niftiness of a gigantic, cloud-scraping monument soaring over the skyline of Miami Beach or Fort Lauderdale or … what the hell … Peanut Island.
That was two decades ago. About 1,500 disassembled bronze chunks of a colossus called “Birth of the New World” were stashed in a Port Everglades warehouse. A free gift from famed Russian sculptor Zurab Tsereteli to South Florida.
Tsereteli had wanted to give us something special to commemorate the 500th anniversary of a certain voyage. You know. In 1492, some fellow sailed the ocean blue.
South Florida would have none of it.
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Sadly, Tsereteli’s gift arrived a few years too late. For most of the previous five centuries, Columbus fairly dripped with prestige. Enough that the District of Columbia, two counties, a dozen U.S. cities, including two state capitals, a major river in the northwest, an Ivy League university, scores of high schools and a band of knights (along with a nation in South America and a province in Canada) were happy to expropriate his name. But by 1992, his heroic rep had begun to be tarnished.
Chris, however accomplished as a navigator, lacked the people skills and ethnic sensitivities to sustain his image through the ’90s. Arguably, Columbus has had plenty of accomplices since 1492 in the exploitation of Native Americans. But being the first celebrity white guy to visit the New World, and with rumors of genocide on his résumé, he has lately become the poster boy for the invaders’ unseemly behavior.
So Miami Beach turned down a statue that would have loomed 30 stories high over the entrance to the Port of Miami. So did Fort Lauderdale. Palm Beach County killed a proposal to prop ol’ Chris up on a pile of dredge dirt called Peanut Island.
But it wasn’t a replica of the actual Christopher Columbus in that warehouse. If Columbus ever sat for a portrait, the pic was lost in some 16th-century garage sale. He pre-dated the selfie. Aside from some vague historical descriptions (“a lot like Gérard Depardieu”), nobody knows what he looked like. The statue’s 11-foot-tall head was sculpted with the elongated features of a Disney cartoon character. Besides, the figure depicts a sailor clutching a ship’s wheel, a nautical innovation that wouldn’t come along until the 1700s.
So we could have just renamed the damned thing, called it his more sensitive cousin Fred Columbus. We could have called it “Lebron sailing back to his forever home Miami.” Folks would have loved it. Our own iconic towering monument — 11 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty — would have greeted our spring breakers and cruise ship passengers as they headed out into the treacherous seas. “Wow. Look. There’s Miami’s big dude.”
Unhappily, South Florida rejected my advice.
But we now have a second chance to erect another semi-amazing towering waterside edifice. If Miami voters would only say “yeah, baby,” SkyRise Miami will soar 1,000 feet over the water’s edge. The silvery sloping tower, looking like the product of a marriage between a G clef and a cotter pin and fairly radiating Miami’s whacky exuberance, would offer observation decks, restaurants, a nightclub, a ballroom, a store and theme-park-style rides.
And it would be sooooo much bigger than those other iconic American towers — taller than the Statue of Liberty, taller than the Washington Monument, taller than Seattle’s Space Needle, taller than the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, taller than either Reunion Tower in Dallas or the Tower of the Americas in San Antonio (take that, Texas), not quite as tall but markedly more elegant than the Stratosphere in Vegas. (Not that out-strapping Las Vegas in elegance will go down as a feat of modern architecture.)
SkyRise would have 16 feet on the Eiffel Tower. And, this being Miami, SkyRise will undoubtedly cause a ruckus like the Paris tower inspired back in 1889, when a coalition of prominent local architects and artists fired off a florid protest letter to the city fathers: “We, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and passionate devotees of the hitherto untouched beauty of Paris, protest with all our strength, with all our indignation in the name of slighted French taste, against the erection … of this useless and monstrous Eiffel Tower … To bring our arguments home, imagine for a moment a giddy, ridiculous tower dominating Paris like a gigantic black smokestack, crushing under its barbaric bulk Notre Dame, the Tour Saint-Jacques, the Louvre, the Dome of les Invalides, the Arc de Triomphe, all of our humiliated monuments will disappear in this ghastly dream. And for twenty years … we shall see stretching like a blot of ink the hateful shadow of the hateful column of bolted sheet metal.”
The Eiffel Tower was supposed to be dismantled after two decades. Despite the snooty critics, the city decided to keep it around a bit longer.
An anti-SkyRise petition has already been circulated in Coconut Grove, questioning whether the privately financed $400 million tower, set on a valuable chunk of city-owned bay-front land, will actually draw enough paying visitors to fend off bankruptcy. But the relatively puny (630 feet) Gateway Arch manages 2.2 million folks a year. The Statue of Liberty gets 3.7 million. The privately owned Space Needle (605 feet) lures a million a year. Since 1889, the Eiffel Tower has drawn 250 million. So far.
None of those shorties offer a 570-foot bungee jump.
Best of all, the Arquitectonica-designed edifice, however Freudian in profile (soon to be known as the Viagra tower), does not risk having the likeness of a celebrity hero — say, David Rivera or Justin Bieber — whose grand eminence might be undone by history. And SkyRise does not in any way resemble that dastardly Christopher Columbus.
After the Tsereteli statue was rejected by Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, even Clearwater (which could use a monument or two) said no. Same with New York and Maryland. Columbus, Ohio, of all places, decided that its namesake was too unpalatable to grace the city skyline.
But this year, workers supervised by the 80-year-old Tsereteli, have begun the $20 million job of assembling the colossus in the Puerto Rican coastal town of Arecibo.
When the job’s completed in 2015 (with a little luck), the much-traveled, unloved and — as I like to point out — not-actually-Christopher-Columbus-could-be-anybody effigy will be the tallest man-made structure in the Caribbean. The orphaned biggie will finally have a home. Because civic leaders in Arecibo, never mind the controversy, never mind the criticism, know that tourists just can’t stay away from a giant, waterside, sky-busting, eye-catching monument.