Tour 20 Architecturally Significant Buildings In Downtown Miami

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By: Dr. Paul S. George

Downtown Miami is Southeast Florida’s most historic neighborhood. At the edge of its southern sector stands the north bank of the Miami River, which, in the course of several thousand years, has hosted a large Tequesta Indian settlement, Spanish missions, slave plantations that used enslaved labor, army forts, the home of Julia Tuttle, modern Miami’s “mother,” Henry M. Flagler’s magnificent Royal Palm Hotel, and today, new towering buildings hosting offices, residential facilities, hotels and retail institutions.

Flagler, after accepting attractive offers of land from Tuttle and the Brickell family, who lived across the river, brought his Florida East Coast Railway to Miami in 1896, jump-starting the transformation of a tiny riverine community into an incorporated city.

Downtown Miami witnessed Miami’s incorporation and virtually everything else occurring in the young city. With its history, breathtaking variety of architectural styles, and its vast archaeological heritage, Downtown Miami, now undergoing an exciting renaissance, offers a delightful venue for those interested in the city's stunning saga.

Here are 20 architecturally significant buildings in Downtown:

Facade of the Freedom Tower
Explore the history behind the Freedom Tower

1. Miami News/Freedom Tower

 600 Biscayne Blvd.

A Boom-era structure built in 1925, the building hosted The Miami News, the city’s first newspaper, for more than 32 years. Designed by Shultze and Weaver, a New York firm, the building, with its magnificent Giralda tower, is patterned after the great Medieval cathedral in Seville, Spain. From 1962 to 1974, nearly 300,000 Cuban refugees received a wide variety of federal assistance and stayed in this building, thereby providing the structure with an additional name the Freedom Tower. Owned today by Miami Dade College, the building has recently undergone a stunning restoration. Today it hosts art exhibitions and star-studded events, while its magnificent façade is illuminated nightly.

2. Central Baptist Church

 500 NE 1st Ave.

Central Baptist Church is one of the city’s centennial churches, having been established on July 27, 1896, the day before Miami’s incorporation as a city. This structure is the third home for the church. Built in 1927, the building is a magnificent evocation of Neo-Classical style.

3. United States Post Office and Federal Courthouse

 300 NE 1st Ave.

Designed by Phineas Paist, Harold D. Stewart and Marion Manley, Florida’s first licensed woman architect, the courthouse reflects a marvelous fusion of the Mediterranean and Neo-Classical styles. Completed in 1934, the building is faced with oolitic limestone and contains a magnificent mural by Denman Fink in the central courtroom. It has been the venue for many major court cases, as well as Senator Estes Kefauver’s Select Committee on Crime hearings in the 1950s.

4. Gesu Church

 118 NE 2nd St.

Gesu Church is the oldest institution still standing on its original site, a nine-lot area provided by Henry M. Flagler, Miami’s “Godfather,” in 1896. The original wood frame church opened there in 1897. It was replaced in 1924 with the present structure designed by Owen Williams of Palm Beach and built at a cost of more than $450,000. Since the Jesuit priests who staff it are noted for their stirring oratory, the architect was instructed to design an interior without posts or pillars so that there would be nothing to obstruct the view of the congregation from the pulpit. The church’s singular stained-glass windows were made by Franz Mayer in Munich, Germany.

5. Security Building/Capital Building

 117 NE 1st Ave.

Known in recent times as the Capital Building, this structure was designed by New York architect Robert Greenfield. Erected in 1926 at an estimated cost of $300,000, the Capital Building represents the only French Second Empire-style structure in Downtown Miami. In recent years, the building’s original façade has been restored, while the offices it once comprised have been converted to residential facilities.

6. The Old Federal Building

 100 NE 1st Ave.

Designed under the supervision of James Knox Taylor and built in 1912, this beautiful Florentine styled structure housed the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse until the early 1930s. Kiehnel and Elliott designed an addition to the building on the west. In the late 1930s, the building became the home of First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Miami, the nation’s first savings and loan.

7. The Ralston Building

 40 NE 1st Ave.

Completed in 1917, the Ralston Building was one of Miami’s first skyscrapers, at eight stories. It was constructed by a prominent local businessman by that name. Before its completion, all 42 offices were filled.

8. McCrory’s Rear Entrance

 18-24 NE 1st St.

Built in the early 1900s, this building served originally as the McCrory Hotel and later as McCrory’s 5 and 10 Cent Store. In the late 1930s, the façade was significantly altered and the expanding 5 and 10 Cent Store took over the hotel, as well as the adjoining property to the rear. The building features an arcaded walkway, typical of early 1900s buildings in Downtown, as well as some Art Deco stylistic features.

9. Shoreland Arcade

 120 NE 1st St.

Designed by Pfeiffer and O’Reilly in 1925, this building was erected by the Shoreland Company, developers of Miami Shores, as its main sales offices during the 1920s real estate boom. The developer’s original intent was to erect a “skyscraper” atop the arcade, but the collapse of the building boom and of the Shoreland Company in the mid-1920s brought a halt to that plan. The building is an outstanding representation of masonry vernacular, along with Neo-Classical, Mediterranean and Art Deco details. Note the reliefs inside and outside of the building. Today, its ground floor and a portion of its ornate arcade host a popular Italian restaurant.

10. Burdines/Macy’s

 22 E. Flagler St.

The first Burdines store opened on the west side of South Miami Avenue in 1898. By the early 1900s, William Burdine had moved the business to today’s East Flagler Street. The streamline façade, designed by Henry Lapointe, was completed in the late 1930s. The store received a two-phased Moderne makeover in 1936 and 1946, creating an elegant International Style presence at the prime intersection of Flagler Street and Miami Avenue. The explosive growth of Downtown in the years immediately after World War II included the construction of a Burdines’ west wing connected by a tri-level bridge across South Miami Avenue.

11. Miami-Dade County Courthouse

 73 W. Flagler St.

Designed by A. Ten Eyck Brown and August Geiger, the courthouse was built around the existing 1904 courthouse. Constructed at a cost of $4 million, it opened in 1928. At 28 stories, it was said to be the tallest building south of Baltimore. For the next 35 years, it dominated the city and county’s skyline and housed both county and city offices, along with the jails of both jurisdictions. Brown, the lead architect, also designed the Los Angeles City Hall, which bears a striking resemblance to this building. The beautiful mezzanine has undergone a sensitive restoration, as has Courtroom 6-1, the venue for many high-profile trials.

HistoryMiami building and sculpture in front
Enjoy history & culture at HistoryMiami

12. HistoryMiami

 101 W. Flagler St.

Explore 10,000 years of Miami’s history and culture through the permanent exhibit entitled Tropical Dreams: A People’s History of South Florida. HistoryMiami, with its expansive museum, exhibition areas and research center, is located at the Philip Johnson-designed Cultural Plaza, which also is home to the Miami-Dade Library.

13. Alfred I. Dupont Building

 169 E. Flagler St.

Designed by Marsh and Saxelbye in 1937, this structure is Miami’s only Art Deco skyscraper and a representation of Depression Moderne architecture. It resembles the buildings comprising Rockefeller Center in New York City, which were also created in the same era. The Dupont Building and the Rockefeller Center complex shared the same interior designer. Note the polished black granite base and enter the lavish lobby featuring bronze bas-relief elevator doors sporting egrets, herons and ibises. The grand escalator leads to the second-level banking hall, featuring scenes from Florida history adorning the high ceiling. During World War II, it served as headquarters for the Seventh Naval District, whose charge was to guard the waters and shorelines against Nazi submarine attacks.

Olympia Theater's golden splendor
Check out Miami's historic Olympia Theater

14. Olympia Theater at the Gusman Center for the Performing Arts

 174 E. Flagler St.

Designed by John Eberson as an atmospheric movie theater and vaudeville house, this magnificent cinema includes twinkling stars, rolling clouds and 12-foot-long chandeliers. The Olmpia Theater and the 10-story adjoining office building were Miami’s first air-conditioned buildings when they opened in early 1926. It was saved from demolition in the early 1970s, after businessman Maurice Gusman purchased it. Since then, the theater has undergone several restorations, the last a million-dollar effort, which has restored it to its original splendor. The theater has hosted the likes of Elvis Presley, Luciano Pavarotti, Desi Arnaz, Ella Fitzgerald, Sophie Tucker and Milton Berle.

15. Walgreens/La Epoca

 200 E. Flagler St.

La Epoca, a venerable Downtown department store, occupies this great Streamline Moderne building, constructed in 1936 by Walgreens as one of its “superstores” of that era. An example of the International Style in Miami, the factory-like appearance was designed by Zimmerman and MacBride. The interior soars three stories high and in the rear there is a grand staircase with exquisite Deco railings. The structure is a good example of adaptive re-use.

16. Ingraham Building

 25 SE 2nd Ave.

Designed by Schultze and Weaver in a style typical of the Chicago School, the Ingraham Building remains one of Downtown’s most elegant office buildings. It features polychromed Florentine eaves, bronze doors and a hand-painted lobby ceiling. Built by Florida East Coast Properties in 1927 at a cost of $2 million, it was named for James Ingraham, one of Henry M. Flagler’s top lieutenants.

17. Huntington Building

 168 SE 1st St.

Designed by Louis Kamper along with Pfeiffer and O’Reilly, and built by Frederick Rand, who named it for his sister, this tall office building was completed in 1926. Rand was an accomplished developer who envisioned East 2nd Avenue, along which he owned numerous parcels of land, as the future “Fifth Avenue of the South.” Prior to the construction of the Huntington Building, a beautiful Queen Anne-style home occupied the site. The building’s most interesting features are the sculptured busts on the parapet.

18. Royal Palm Cottage

 64 SE 4th St.

Built in 1897 by Henry Flagler, the Royal Palm Cottage was part of housing intended for the construction workers who were building the Royal Palm Hotel. During a visit to oversee construction, Flagler discovered the deplorable conditions the workers were living in and built 30 cottages for them to live in take-up residence. Quite the visionary, Flagler could see these cottages eventually bought by those wanting a second home for the winter. Fashioned from Dade County pine and painted “Flagler Yellow,” the railroad magnate’s favorite color, the cottages rented for $15 to $22 a month. Over time the cottages slowly disappeared, but in 1979 the last cottage was moved, via the Miami River, to Fort Dallas Park. A few years after relocation, the Royal Palm Cottage was given historical designation by the City of Miami and placed on the National Registry of Historic places. Today it is still standing strong and part of a waterfront restaurant.

19. The Miami Circle

 South bank of the Miami River near the river’s mouth

Discovered in the summer of 1998 during a routine archaeological survey prior to the construction of high-rise apartments, the now world-famous, 38-foot-diameter Miami Circle continues to mystify. It is believed to be part of a structure built by the Tequesta people who occupied the river banks more than 2,000 years ago. Now in public ownership, and managed by HistoryMiami as a park, it can be viewed from the Brickell Avenue Bridge under the shadow of the imposing statue of a Tequesta family, created by the renowned international artist Manuel Carbonell. Carbonell used the column relief to tell the story of Florida’s native people as portrayed by French artist Jacques Lemoyne, who came to Florida in 1564.

20. The Brickell Avenue Bridge

The Brickell Bridge, designed by the firm of Portuondo, Perotti and Associates, is named in honor of the pioneer Brickell family that operated an Indian trading post on the south bank of the Miami River and owned vast amounts of land between the river and Coconut Grove. Besides the Tequesta statue, artist Manuel Carbonell also created the bas-reliefs on the bridge’s pillars honoring six people who left their imprint on the city—Julia Tuttle, Henry M. Flagler, William and Mary Brickell, D.A. Dorsey and Marjory Stoneman Douglas.

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