Miami's Best and Brightest

Remodeling a Hotel for African American Celebrities

In the days of segregation, when people of color could secure neither a room nor a dinner reservation at Miami Beach's famed hotels, the Hampton House Motel in nearby Brownsville provided a haven of culture for African Americans.

Malcolm X became a frequent guest at the 50-room motel; Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, visited the Mediterranean-style outdoor pool with Muhammad Ali. Sam Cooke regularly sang in the low-lit lounge, and locals claim that Martin Luther King Jr. gave an early version of his "I Have a Dream" speech at the Hampton House before proclaiming the final version in Washington in 1963.

But the Hampton House closed in 1972, just 17 years after it opened, a casualty of desegregation and nearby growth. It has remained vacant and deteriorating ever since, and today it is one of the last segregation-era hotels still standing.

When Miami architect Daphne Gurri first saw the Hampton House in 2006, it was in a state of total disrepair: The roof and second floor had collapsed; the floor was covered in mud; and a 35-foot ficus tree grew in the middle of the two-story structure.

"The [trees] uprooted all the walkways, and their roots intertwined with the railings," says Gurri, principal and owner of Miami-based Gurri Matute. "It was like something from your imagination—like the Sleeping Beauty movie, when the castle is covered with vines."

The Historic Hampton House Community Trust (HHHCT) selected Gurri's architecture firm to shore up the motel's sloping concrete walls. It was the first of many steps taken to save the structure—an effort that began after Enid C. Pinkney helped establish the HHHCT.

Pinkney first learned of the Hampton House as a member of the African American Committee of the Dade Heritage Trust, when the old motel was threatened with a demolition order. In 2001, the structure was collapsing, but a handful of residents remembered what it had been and hoped to preserve it.

"They came to [the Dade Heritage Trust] asking if we would sponsor the historic designation of the building," Pinkney says. "But the motive had to change because it was a derelict building, and if you have no building, you have no historic designation."

The group did secure a stay of demolition from the mayor, but then encountered problems with the owner, who wanted to sell the property. "We were pleading with him not to sell," says Pinkney. "Whoever bought it could tear it down."

The county was able to purchase the Hampton House for $450,000 and designate the property a local historic site. However, the Dade County Heritage Trust had neither funds for restoration nor time to raise awareness of the building's plight. So Pinkney formed the HHHCT in 2002, and today its future looks as promising as it did in the past.

When it opened in 1954, the then-Booker Terrace Motel and Apartments stood out as a midcentury modern complex in predominately middle-class, African American Brownsville. The motel did not become a success until property owners Harry and Florence Markowitz took over and decided to offer the type of upscale amenities found in nearby Miami Beach.

They established a 24-hour restaurant and jazz nightclub with white linen tablecloths, valet parking, and a well-known maitre d', Charles Martin. Because African American musicians could not check in to the all-white hotels where they performed in Miami Beach, many of them flocked to the Hampton House.

Then came integration, and the motel's popularity simply evaporated. Longtime clients began staying elsewhere, and the motel became a symbol of urban blight.

Last September, Gurri's firm finished the exhaustive task of stabilizing the hotel walls and clearing the space of nearly 30 years of mud, debris, and trash.

"When we first came in, you had to watch your head for fallen floor beams that were dangling, and pieces of glass that had fallen down from the second floor," she says. "Now there's a web of temporary beams that cross from one side of the building to the next."

During the two-year clean-up, Gurri's team was able to salvage artifacts like wrought-iron railings and pink-and-green terrazzo-style tiles from more than half of the original rooms. However, many areas of the motel must be rebuilt, rather than restored. On Feb. 17 the local Historic Preservation Board will hold a hearing to approve the project, which follows the Secretary of the Interior's guidelines for historic preservation.

When the $7.5 million project is completed in 2012, the Historic Hampton Hotel Community Trust hopes to open the refurbished space as a music museum and cultural center. "There will be a community room for people to have wedding receptions and parties and social events," Pinkney says. "We hope to have a restaurant and gift shop, and a space for local educational institutions to hold music classes."

Both Florida Memorial University and the University of Miami have expressed a desire to use the finished building as an off-campus base for music lessons, says Gurri.

"This project was a no-brainer," Gurri says. "It's a rare opportunity to be called in to remodel a building with such a history to it."

 

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