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An Open Letter To All Historic Buildings Nearing Retirement Age

Dec 29, 2007
If you're a historic building looking for a nice place to spend your golden years, Miami might not be it. Quite apart from the subtropical sun beating down your finish to a dull suggestion of what you once looked like, you'll be subjected to a vicious cycle of heat, humidity, rain and (sometimes very big) wind that will leave you old before your time.

And, if you survive all that, good luck surviving developer's fever. No, it's not a disease you can catch, but it can kill you just the same. As soon as the dirt under your footers becomes valuable enough, they'll start fitting you for the wrecking ball, and you won't be getting a corsage. Sure, you'll still get some visitors who think you deserve to be left alone, but very few of them will have enough influence (or money) to save you. Those that do will probably form their own buyer's group to sell the city fathers (and mothers) a slightly less destructive plan. When the dust settles, your old friends will be greeted by a nice plaque, maybe even a scale model, when they visit your grave.

I know you've been around. You should know all this by now. If you don't, my novel "Landmark Status" offers a short, sharp lesson. In it, third-generation barkeep Walter Marsh calls on lawyer Benjy Bluestone to help him sell the Century Club, a once-legendary nightspot awakened from decades of slumbering decay along Biscayne Bay by a local building boom. An obscure civic group has sued to enjoin Walter's planned sale to out-of-towners, claiming the Club is historic and shouldn't be altered, much less bulldozed. They might not mean it, and just might be shills for developer Chuck Steinberg and his front man, politician Oscar Torres, who'd love to screw things up long enough to drive away other buyers.

Beating them won't be easy, and neither will getting paid, but Benjy's motivation includes the chance to get next to Oscar's niece, beautiful broker Delia Torres. She's been promised a huge commission by Steinberg but decides to get on Walter's side of the deal, so she'll get paid no matter who buys the Club. uring an initial skirmish in court, Benjy holds off the injunction pending resolution of petitions for historic designation. Afterward, he shows Delia what made the Century Club famous: To get to the Everglades Room, Delia and Benjy followed the path between the end of the street and the railroad tracks by the water. In the old days, they'd have crossed the street on a covered footbridge between the second floor of the Club and the small hotel attached to the Everglades Room. But the footbridge was too low for the modern world, and it was demolished after it sheared the sleeper off a moving van some years back.

"Let me carry that for you," Benjy said, reaching for Delia's drink.

"That's okay," said Delia, pulling it away from him. "You have a tendency to fall down around me." She was thinking about how to get Benjy to help her convince Walter he needed an agent -- her. She smiled slightly, unexpectedly tickled as one obvious method came to mind. Benjy smiled back, as they reached what looked like a huge Miccosukee chickie hut, walled in with weathered planks of Dade County pine framing wide windows.

They unlocked the door and went inside. The afternoon sun filled the room with crisscrossing arrows of light that flared out across pictures on every wall. Delia put down her drink and stopped, arms at her sides, a shaft of sunshine picking her out, lighting her up like a model at the end of the runway. She stood still and looked around, surrounded by hundreds of glamorous women and sharply dressed men in fading photographs, most with fading autographs. With a light touch on her elbow, Benjy steered her past a long bar toward one of the oaken captain's chairs gathered around a dozen tables. They sat down.

"Once upon a time," Benjy said, "this was a retreat for the swells, the mavens, the beautiful people before they were called that. They came here to get away from the crowd."

"It looks like they stayed, like this is some kind of weird shrine," Delia said, surveying the walls of photos. "Kind of creepy, if you ask me."

Benjy stood up. "Come here for a second," he said, and walked over to a wall of pictures. Delia followed, and the two of them read Miami's young history in the pictures of its celebrities, famous, infamous and obscure, all united by the time they'd spent in this place. There were gangsters, movie stars, writers, crooners, comedians, politicians and, of course, developers. Al Capone was there. So were Rita Hayworth and Damon Runyon, Perry Como and Jackie Gleason, Harry Truman and Carl Fisher, creator of Miami Beach.

Like their namesakes many years ago, the pictures of the truly famous were sitting next to pictures of locals most people never heard of. Delia walked by an autographed picture of Eddie Arcaro on a winning colt at Gulfstream, also autographed by the two smiling men holding the colt's bridle, Moe and Izzy Fine. She stopped to look at a picture of nameless workmen, sledgehammers and shovels at their sides, smiling for the camera as they took a break from building the railroad, the posh hotels and the places where plain folks lived, all come to find their place in the South Florida sun. Like her.

"This was the room where Miami was divvied up for decades," Benjy said, "where the pea patches were replaced with gleaming piles of rubble to be."

"And now it has to make way for the next gleaming pile," Delia said, smiling and getting to the point.

"You're learning fast."

"I was always a quick study."

Battling to save Walter's deal, Benjy and his crew fight their way in and out of historic buildings like the Dade County Courthouse and Biltmore Hotel, while they careen through historic neighborhoods like Coral Gables and Opa-Locka, inspecting the handiwork and rubble left by famous developers like Henry Flagler, George Merrick and Glen Curtiss. Along the way, they realize that even the Native Americans here came from someplace else, long after the Spaniards slaughtered Miami's first inhabitants, the Tequesta, builders of the mysterious Miami Circle. Rolling northward on Collins Avenue, Benjy and Delia take a somewhat shorter trip back in time:

After a stretch of dunes and public beach, they passed through Sunny Isles. It once was known for low-rise motels from the fifties with names stolen from Vegas hotels of that era, like the Sahara, Thunderbird and Desert Inn. The motels were all gone or going now, and the few that were left looked like radioactive waste, glowing orange as the sun started to set.

"By the way," Delia asked, "where are we going?"

"Just a little further," said Benjy. "I promise you it's worth the drive."

"I'll be the judge of that," Delia said with a smile. So they kept going, through canyons of high-rises, until they came to a toy town of tiny motels and apartments on the beach. They were in Hollywood, another place with a purloined name.

"Now that's more like it," Benjy said.

"Like what?" Delia asked.

"Something more peaceful, on a more human scale. There's still lots of places in Florida that look like this, just not down here. And the best is yet to come."

"And when will that be?"

"You'll know it when you see it."

She did. A few blocks north, the strip of land between the Intracoastal and the ocean was too narrow for more than a couple of restaurants, along with a day-cruise gambling boat berthed in the mangroves. The sunset was getting more dramatic, splashing vivid red streaks across the horizon. It lit up everything with a rich russet glow. They could have been hundreds of miles north, driving along a beach that was largely being left alone to live in peace.

"Let's stop for a minute," Benjy suggested.

Delia turned into a wooded parking lot next to the ocean. "I haven't been here before," she said.

"This place is special," said Benjy. "Come take a look."

They walked toward the water on a path bathed in purplish light and shadow, as the sunset played on rows of slender palm trees in the sand.

"What are all these trees doing here?" Delia asked, leaning up against one and taking off her heels.

"Why, they're going to the beach, of course," Benjy said. "Here, let me give you a hand," he said, reaching for hers and holding it unselfconsciously as they walked on.

Delia looked down at Benjy's hand holding hers, wondering whether to pull it away. She decided not to. "I guess the trees strolled over from their tree motel, right?"

"Not exactly," Benjy said, as they walked closer to the water. "They're different from us in many ways. And they only get to choose where they want to be once." He stopped and turned to face her.

"What if they make a mistake?" Delia asked, looking back at him.

"They don't. Trees aren't filled with longing for what they don't have." With a light touch, he wrapped his arms around her and kissed her, softly, as if asking a question. He thought he felt Delia answer, as she let go of her guarded caution for an instant and kissed him back. But she pulled away quickly. "Don't get any ideas," she said with a half smile.

"Who, me?" he asked, as they turned to walk back from the beach, under a darkening sky filling up with stars.

Like Benjy's beachgoing trees, I hope you and other historic buildings aren't filled with longing for what you don't have, because pinning your hopes on a quiet retirement in Miami is very risky. Like the Century Club, you'll need to choose your friends (and owners) wisely. You'll also need more than a little luck. Otherwise, you'll end up like the Americana, the grandest of renowned architect Morris Lapidus' Miami Beach hotels, recently blown up at the age of fifty-one to make way for a spiffy new condo/hotel/resort/spa wonder palace. There's no reason to be confident its older siblings, including the Eden Roc and the Fontainebleau, will make it to seventy-five. My advice is to tune out those chattering snowbirds going in and out your door when the weather turns cold. You're better off staying where you are.
About the Author
Alan H. Rolnick practiced law for 20 years in Miami, whose heart-stopping beauty and self-absorbed chaos challenged him daily to figure out where on earth he was, and he is the author of Landmark Status. Visit Alan Rolnick.
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