Preservationists: Bay Harbor Islands' MiMo architecture in ‘danger'

When lawyer and developer Shepard Broad created the town of Bay Harbor Islands 60 years ago from two mangrove clumps in the middle of Biscayne Bay, he recruited an all-star crew of local architects for a bold undertaking.

Over a dozen years, they forged a showcase of modern architecture with a decidedly subtropical twist on the town’s East Island — a cohesive collection of dozens of breezy duplexes, garden apartments and bigger co-op buildings regarded today as one of the most significant surviving troves of Miami Modern, or MiMo, design.
It may also be the most imperiled.

Because of a surge of upscale condo development and a town leadership that preservationists contend is indifferent, if not hostile, to the idea of saving any of it, Bay Harbor’s East Island has landed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Preservationists and MiMo acolytes say they hope that inclusion on the widely publicized list, which Trust officials say has helped salvage scores of important sites and buildings, will prompt town officials to recognize the historic, cultural and economic value of the East Island’s MiMo abundance.

Up to now, they say, the town council has consistently spurned pleas to safeguard some of the island’s most important buildings — designs by such big names as Morris Lapidus, Igor Polevitzky, Charles McKirahan and Robert Swartburg — or to ensure that new development on the island is compatible with the scale and feel of its architectural heritage.

Instead, they say, the town has been quick to approve demolitions and new lot-filling condo and townhouse projects that overwhelm the island’s modestly scaled historic buildings and clash architecturally with them. The town has in recent months approved some 25 new condo projects, more than half of which would replace architecturally significant buildings, Miami-Dade County preservation officials say.

“They have basically ignored us,” said Teri D’Amico, an interior designer and longtime East Island resident who co-coined the MiMo label, now widely accepted to describe a uniquely local version of mid-20th century architecture. “We have no planning or vision. The new development is bad and so insensitive to what’s here. People have front doors looking into a parking garage. We are losing the quality of life that makes it so special.’’

Robert Yaffe, Bay Harbor’s mayor and a longtime council member, strongly disputes those assertions. Because the town doesn’t have its own preservation program, he noted, it cannot by itself designate historic buildings for protection — a function that falls to the county’s preservation board.

Yaffe said he was surprised the town wound up on the Trust list. He said the council has never taken a position against preservation. The subject hasn’t come up for discussion since the council sponsored a symposium on historic preservation several years ago, he said. That symposium has not led to any concrete results.

“The town has never to my knowledge opposed the efforts of anybody to designate any property. There has been some discussion in the past regarding some of the properties in the town that some people recognized as architecturally significant, but it’s not been a matter of active discussion in council meetings,” he said.

He wouldn’t say whether he would support designation of any structures, saying it’s not a matter for the town council.

“It’s not something the town would necessarily do. That’s up to the county’s board,” he said.

Pressed for his opinion of MiMo architecture or the value of the East Island’s historic buildings, Yaffe was succinct: “There is some very interesting architecture within the town.”

But Miami-Dade preservation officials say they halted an effort in 2010 to designate two landmark, adjacent McKirahan buildings as historic because of opposition from the town council, which went so far as to send an outside attorney to oppose them at a public meeting — a move county preservation chief Kathleen Kauffman said was likely unprecedented.

One of the two buildings, distinguished by exterior screens composed of interspersed concrete and colored glass blocks, was recently sold and is presumed fated for the wrecking ball. Preservationists fear its neighbor — which boasts an unusual spiral-staircase entryway and was featured in the hit cable TV series Dexter as the main character’s home — may be next.

The county has broad legal authority to protect historic buildings in Bay Harbor and other municipalities without preservation programs but prefers to win some support from local officials and residents first, Kauffman said.

“We were trying to work in good faith with the town,” she said. “We have the option of going in to start designating buildings, but that’s not in anyone’s best interest.”

Kauffman said there is little question that the East Island is chock-full of MiMo buildings that meet the legal criteria for historic designation under local and federal standards. A building-by-building survey of the island conducted a few years ago by the late planner Carlos Dunn lays out what she called an overwhelming case for its historic and architectural value.

That value resides as much in the whole as in the design of individual buildings, she said — the overall architectural consistency, the careful mix of small and bigger buildings and the sensitive, low-density layout, meant to maximize water views, breezes and open spaces.

“To us, what’s even more significant is the scale and density and how buildings were sited,” Kauffman said. “Everyone’s front door opens to something beautiful. It gives every resident in these buildings an enhanced quality of life.”

That’s not to minimize the architectural pizzaz of its distinctive buildings, many of which are clearly the work of skilled designers and in some instances exemplars of the jaunty MiMo style, she said. MiMo architecture is typically realized in concrete, and characterized by geometric play, breezeways, catwalks, floating staircases, decorative railings, intricate shading screens made of molded concrete blocks or metal grilles, and angular “beanpole” columns.

“The details are just fantastic,” Kauffman said. “It’s incredible that all these architects were designing in one place more or less at the same time.”

The island’s new and planned buildings, most of them blocky structures meant to maximize allowable square footage, not only disrupt the carefully conceived urban fabric of the island but are by and large architecturally undistinguished, some preservationists say — either bland contemporary designs or generic “Tuscan” rowhouses that make no effort to relate to their MiMo forebears.

“I call them brutally average,” D’Amico said.

Yaffe disagrees: “I think a lot of the projects that have been proposed are very interesting architecturally and will be nice additions to Bay Harbor.”

Bay Harbor’s alleged neglect of its architectural heritage stands in sharp contrast to the approach of Miami Beach and Miami, both of which have celebrated and protected MiMo districts that include iconic structures such as Lapidus’ Fontainebleau and Eden Roc hotels along Collins Avenue, and Swartburg’s Vagabond Motel on Biscayne Boulevard.

The Vagabond, which is similar in scale and feel to Bay Harbor’s garden apartments, is about to reopen after an extensive restoration.

The Beach is also weighing creation of protected MiMo districts in its North Beach neighborhood, which is already on the National Register of Historic Places. North Beach has a concentration of 1950s residences similar to that of the East Island, and by some of the same prominent architects of the time.

Even Coral Gables, better known for its Mediterranean architecture, has designated a late-MiMo office building by Lapidus on Le Jeune Road as a protected historic landmark.

But MiM
o’s recognition as a distinct, and valuable, architectural style has come only recently amid a revival of appreciation for the broader field of mid-century design. And, as often happens with architecture from the recent past, many people believe it’s ugly or not worth saving, said National Trust president Stephanie Meeks.

In that sense, she said, Bay Harbor is not unique. Buildings from the era are “under siege” and being demolished for redevelopment in growing numbers across the country, she said.

“MiMo is a very distinctive interpretation of mid-century modern architecture. There isn’t anything else like it in the country,” Meeks said. “In this particular case we understand the threat is real.”

Meeks and other preservationists say the designation of historic buildings and the creation of historic districts, a subset of local government’s zoning powers, have amply proved their value by spurring redevelopment and economic revivals of once-neglected neighborhoods like Miami’s Morningside and, perhaps most prominently, South Beach. That’s in part because more people, including developers, are seeking out places with a distinctive character and architecture to work, invest and live in, preservationists say.

Despite common misconceptions, designation protects the exterior of buildings but does not bar additions or redevelopment, so long as new construction is simpatico with the historic. The success of South Beach has been in part credited to Miami Beach’s careful balancing of new development with the old.

But that’s a lesson that Bay Harbor, a town of fewer than 6,000 people with a small administrative staff, may not be equipped or sophisticated enough to emulate, some preservationists say.

In pursuing new development, they say, the town may risk losing the irreproducible architectural character that distinguishes its East Island from so many other places and miss a unique opportunity, said Daniel Veitia, a real estate agent and property manager who works in North Beach.

In North Beach, Veitia said, rising rents and the allure of the low-scale MiMo neighborhood mean developers will gladly spend money to renovate and, when possible, add on to historic buildings, and the city has enacted zoning incentives to encourage that.

“Other cities would be spending money to create that attraction,” said Veitia, who stressed he’s neither a passionate MiMo fan nor a strident preservationist, referring to Bay Harbor’s East Island. “The neighborhood’s still almost intact. The buildings are in great shape. It’s spectacular. You don’t have to be a preservationist to see that value. Many people want to live in a low-density neighborhood.

“But it seems in Bay Harbor that neither the council nor the administration nor the community seem to value that architectural fabric, that neighborhood. They’re looking at their tax base, and not recognizing they can’t re-create what they already have. Maybe they need to be educated.”

Kauffman said she hopes to do just that. The county is now re-surveying the East Island to determine what has been lost since the last study. Then it will organize community meetings on the East Island to encourage residents and building owners to embrace historic designation as a way of preserving their neighborhood, she said.

Yaffe suggests preservationists’ fears are overstated, saying he’s skeptical all the planned projects will actually be built. But he said he would support further discussion with county preservation officials and board members.

In the end, Kauffman said, whether inclusion on the National Trust endangered list makes a difference will depend on Bay Harbor residents.

“It should be a huge wake-up call to the residents,” she said. “At this point, it’s the residents who will have to be the front line of defense.”

Prominent MiMo architects

Here are some prominent MiMo architects with buildings in Bay Harbor Island’s East Island, along with notable examples of their work elsewhere:
Igor Polevitzky: Albion amd Shelborne hotels, Miami Beach; Habana Riviera Hotel, Cuba.
Robert Swartburg: Vagabond Motel, Miami; Delano Hotel, Miami Beach.
Morris Lapidus: Lincoln Road Mall, Eden Roc and Fontainebleau hotels, Miami Beach.
Charles McKirahan: Miami Seaquarium, Virginia Key; Sea Chateau, Manhattan Tower, Fort Lauderdale.
Norman Giller: Carillon Hotel, The Standard (Lido Spa), North Beach Band Shell, Miami Beach.
Albert Anis: Temple Emanu-el, Clevelander, Sagamore and Shore Club hotels, Miami Beach.

Other places on the list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places:
• The Palisades, New Jersey
• Frank Lloyd Wright’s Spring House, Tallahassee
• Music Hall and Union Station, Cincinnati, Ohio