Deco, MiMo, and Up We Go

Can Miami's past survive the overheated present?

JA
An office building and 1925 Freedom Tower, Miami, Fla.

Credit: Accelerated Schools

Sallye Jude sits in the fussy Victorian lobby of the Miami River Inn, just west of downtown Miami. A curious dalliance between past and future exists on this stretch of the river; the new NeoLofts condominium complex next door, which rises 21 stories over the inn, got its first residents just the night before. The tower is white and lean and aggressively geometric. It emits a pale glow at twilight, a ghostly presence hovering over the densely landscaped grounds and historic buildings that make up the inn.

Jude has been involved in Florida preservation efforts since 1972, and her achievements include saving the grandly neoclassical Warner Place, a home completed in 1912 that she and her partners converted to offices in the neighborhood between downtown and East Little Havana. While engaged in that project, Jude noticed a derelict assortment of turn-of-the-century frame boarding houses nearby, the last of a once-common local breed. In 1989, Jude and six partners started to buy the buildings. Over the next three years they acquired 11 adjacent properties—including a former guest house called the Rose Arms, where a week's stay once cost $16—and invested $5 million in restoration and landscaping.

Jude faced setbacks in bringing this inn back to life—among them, a crime wave that targeted tourists, and the fallout from a failed bank that had financed the project. But she confronted an even more formidable hurdle in integrating her vision into that of the city. "It was a hard job to convince people that there's history here and it needs to be preserved," she says.

Preservation had traditionally lacked a voice in Miami, in part, Jude says, because powerful landowners exerted an outsized influence on decisions at city hall. But it's also because, in Miami, the past isn't all that past, and history hasn't defined city character as it has in so many other eastern seaboard locales. It started as a mid-19th-century frontier outpost but didn't get on the map until after its incorporation in 1896, the same year Henry Flagler brought his railroad south to take advantage of frost-free winters. When nearly the whole of the city's history can be recalled by living residents, the case to preserve the remnants tends to be hard to make.  

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