This drum-like concrete structure in Collins Park was built as an auditorium for the new public library erected in 1962. It was designed by Herbert A. Mathes, the New York–born architect responsible for a number of Miami Beach hotels (including the Parisian, the Continental, and the Allison). Mathes had not previously designed public facilities; his expertise was in the flashier architecture of Miami Beach hotels and in suburban housing developments, such as the first group of 500 middle-class houses built by the Mackle Company in Key Biscayne (1950).
Mathes’s design comprises two contrasting pavilions, with the stacks and reading room set in an open and airy building with floor-to-ceiling windows and a broad porch opening toward Collins Avenue, while the offset auditorium played its solid counterpart. The auditorium was left to stand isolated and alone in the 1980s when the rest of the complex was demolished, and has been largely abandoned since then.
Built at a time when as many as 2,000 vacationers would sign up for library cards every year, the new library illustrated the optimism of the early 1960s in South Florida. The auditorium was intended to help cultivate literary culture in Miami Beach by hosting readings, lectures, films, and book fairs, and its civic importance was emphasized by its prominent location, idiosyncratic massing, and dramatic use of bas relief sculpture. The building is surrounded by a shallow pool that once held the condenser water for the library’s air conditioning system, and possibly refers to a key source for the design: the recently completed MIT Chapel by Eero Saarinen.
In addition to the reflecting pool, the cylindrical building evokes the richly textured surface and careful integration of decorative arts in Saarinen’s chapel. The auditorium is wrapped completely in a concrete bas-relief sculpture by Albert Vrana, a New Jersey–born artist who worked in Coconut Grove. Titled The Story of Man, the abstract design makes reference to the role of the written word in the development of human culture. Vrana cast the concrete panels directly into wet sand he had shaped by hand. This technique had been popularized by artists like Costantino Nivola, who cast his widely published, seventy-five-foot-long bas relief for the Olivetti showroom on New York’s Fifth Avenue (1954) on a beach in Long Island.
When the library building was demolished, the auditorium adopted a wonderful visual relationship with the Bass Museum of Art (built as the Miami Beach public library in 1930–1934), with the auditorium’s sand-cast concrete walls echoing the sculpted coral rock facade of the older building. Together, they demonstrate the longstanding integration of the visual arts in South Florida, and the enduring importance of narrative decoration in public facilities. Like other prominent postwar buildings—most notably the contemporaneous Bacardi Building—Mathes and Vrana’s auditorium marked the emergence of South Florida as a site for experimentation and innovation as architects sought to augment the limited vocabulary of the International Style.
Shulman, Allan T., Randall C. Robinson, and James F. Donnelly. Miami Architecture: An AIA Guide Featuring Downtown, the Beaches, and Coconut Grove. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010.