MiMo tackles the challenge of historic designation selections
By Marilyn Bowden
With buildings from the post-war boom of the late 1940s and early '50s becoming eligible for historic designation, local planners and architectural historians say they're facing the difficult task of deciding what should be preserved. Miami Beach's MiMo movement is leading the way.
"Historic preservation is a rolling challenge that presents itself in a different way to every generation," said Allan Shulman, assistant research professor at the University of Miami's School of Architecture and principal of Allan T. Shulman Architects.
"In a sense it's the preservation of the city's DNA. It's a valuable exercise in determining what type of city we are and what type of environment we want to make for ourselves."
Mr. Shulman, co-author with UM colleague Jean-Francois Lejeune of The Making of Miami Beach: The Architecture of L. Murray Dixon 1933-1942, said one of the challenges post-war architecture poses is that its architects are not as well-known as pre-war modernists such as Dixon and Henry Hohauser.
In Miami-Dade, said Rick Ferrer, county architectural historian and historic preservation specialist, buildings 50 years old or more are eligible for historic preservation. The National Register of Historic Places also uses the 50-year rule of thumb.
Buildings in historic districts are classified as contributing or non-contributing to the district's historic character, Mr. Ferrer said - a system that allows forward-looking municipalities such as Miami Beach to give properties built up to the early 1960s protection through an historic designation.
"There was a huge building boom after World War II," he said, "when servicemen who had been stationed at Miami Beach returned with their families. Literally thousands of buildings were built. We're getting information together from property appraisers to find out how many were constructed in the late 1940s."
Deciding what warrants preservation and what does not is "a dilemma," Mr. Ferrer said.
"What's good? What's not so good? Today, shopping malls are criticized. Should they be preserved? As for the diners and drive-ins typical of the era, there's not one left in Miami that has not been changed."
Similarly, he said, single-family homes built in the era that have survived without renovations are few and far between.
In areas such as Kendall and Westchester, where post-war building was rife, he said, "there was a free-for-all after Hurricane Andrew, an opportunity to update homes."
Ultimately, Mr. Ferrer said, the county will probably look at preserving homes of prominent individuals in civil rights, government and environmental issues.
On Miami Beach, a movement to preserve post-war architecture is already afoot, said Randall Robinson, a planner with the Miami Beach Community Development Corporation who coined the term Miami Modern, or MiMo, for it.
Mr. Shulman said MiMo refers to such architectural traits as light, concrete structures supported on metal poles, cantilevered concrete slabs with holes in them and whimsical metallic and concrete constructions.
"Just as Miami Art Deco is different from Art Deco in New York or Paris," he said, "post-war architecture in South Florida has its own character that identifies a unique sense of place.
"The post-war era was a time when architects were very concerned about the relationship between buildings and the environment. Many attempted novel approaches to making them more breathable.
"The evidence of that is in sunscreens, continuous open windows, houses framed in mosquito screening or completely open on the ground floor like a tree house."
A good example of post-war planning is the University of Miami campus in Coral Gables, Mr. Shulman said - particularly the Memorial Building with its open-air plazas.
North Beach has a high concentration of post-war building, he said.
While Miami Beach is aggressively addressing preservation, he said, other municipalities with post-war architecture such as Sunny Isles, Bay Harbour Islands and Surfside probably don't have concerted preservation efforts under way.
Mr. Robinson said the work of Barbara Capitman, who spearheaded a successful campaign to save South Beach's Art Deco district, serves as a guide for MiMo supporters.
"She was very knowledgeable about marketing and promotion," Mr. Robinson said. "She came up with the term `Art Deco District,' though purists might not call it that.
"With that in mind we saw that 'post-war modern' or 'international style' would not be an easy sell. So the first thing was to encapsulate the concept to make it easy to understand."
The challenge extended beyond nomenclature, he said. While Art Deco properties were concentrated in South Beach, MiMo architects spread across the county.
"Up to now," Mr. Robinson said, "the best-known examples are Miami Beach's grand hotels, such as the Fontainebleau, Eden Roc, Deauville and Carillon. But every type of property from homes to office buildings is represented, he said.
"On Biscayne Boulevard north of 36th Street there are some great examples of MiMo," he said, "mostly motels and office buildings. But they're not built on the cozy, human scale of Lincoln Road or Ocean Drive."
He said he's working on a report on the results of a competition held last year during Design & Architecture Day in which students were asked to design alternate uses for these properties. The report will be made available to developers.
Mr. Shulman said it's hard to compare the MiMo movement with the battle to save Art Deco.
"That was also a fight to save a neighborhood," he said, "It had social components. That social aspect of the preservation fight is not being repeated."
Ms. Capitman used her marketing talents to stimulate interest in Art Deco outside Miami, Mr. Robinson said. He hopes to do the same for MiMo.
"We have a photo exhibit of MiMo buildings by local photographers that we hope will be a major catalyst," he said. "It will open at the Municipal Art Society in New York City in the spring. We hope to tie the opening in with a developers' conference."
Mr. Shulman called the exhibit a triumph for MiMo.