An Open Letter To All Historic Buildings Nearing Retirement Age

An Open Letter To All Historic Buildings Nearing Retirement Age

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 might be shills for developer Chuck Steinberg and his frontman, politician Oscar Torres, who'd love to​ screw things up just 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. Winning 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."

Fighting the battle of​ the Century Club in​ historic buildings like the Dade County Courthouse and Biltmore Hotel, Benjy's and Oscar's crews careen through historic neighborhoods like Coral Gables and Opa-Locka, marking the handiwork of​ famous developers like George Merrick and Glen Curtiss. Their antics celebrate Miami's principal industry, the sale and resale of​ the same dirt to​ next wave of​ newcomers, sometimes called the great Florida Ponzi scheme. They embrace this unifying tradition of​ a​ new city where everyone came from somewhere else, even the Native Americans, long after the Spaniards stole the land from (and slaughtered) its first developers, the Tequesta, builders of​ the mysterious Miami Circle. Rolling north 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, 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.

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