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Water defines the Florida peninsula and has an impact on nearly every aspect of its architectural legacy. The special form of carbonate limestone that undergirds nearly everything built on the peninsula was created starting around 65 million years ago by marine organisms whose remnants fossilized into the porous bedrock. About 12,000 years ago the shoreline reached its current configuration, making it today the longest shoreline of any state in the continental United States. The word peninsula, which is created by joining the Latin words paena (almost) and insula (island), points to a palpable sense of expectation—almost being something or somewhere else— that underlies Florida’s architecture and makes its collection of architecture and urban experiments one of the most interesting in the country.

Settlements began to appear on the peninsula circa 7,000 years ago with fishing communities forming along the coast and others developing the agricultural production of corn in the inland areas. Two predominant building strategies appear. One involved moving and mounding soil and debris into new landscapes, as in the Turtle Mound built by Timucua Indians near what is now New Smyrna Beach. The other building type was lightweight structures supported on posts dug into the soft limestone.

In the spring of 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon made the first recorded landing of Europeans on the peninsula somewhere near St. Augustine, which was to be founded about sixty years later and is considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in the United States. The timing of Ponce de Leon’s landing coincided with the celebration of the Pascua Florida, or the Flowers of Easter, which gave Florida its name. On the east coast the Spanish established the fort Castillo de San Marco in 1671 to support Spanish advances into present-day Georgia, which was to be contested with Great Britain for the next several decades. On the northwest coast of Florida, the Spanish founded Pensacola in 1698 and added the fortress San Carlos de Austria to provide Spanish military force against the French in New Orleans and Louisiana. The Gonzalez-Alvarez House in St. Augustine is considered Florida’s oldest house. It was built in the very early 1700s as a simple, two-room, single-story stone structure that was transformed by a wooden second floor and a porch over the course of the century and a half before Florida became a state.

When Great Britain assumed control of Florida and the Keys following the 1763 Treaty of Paris, British authorities codified the geographical and historical distinctions between East Florida, with its political center in St. Augustine and its extension down the peninsula past Key West to the Tortugas, and West Florida, which extended west of the Apalachicola River with its political center in Pensacola. Twenty years later, Spain regained control of all of Florida with the signing of the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which marked the official end of the American Revolutionary War. It was during this period that “Don Juan McQueen” (Spanish for the Irish John McQueen) built the Kinsey Plantation (1797–1798), Florida’s oldest surviving plantation house, on Fort George Island near Jacksonville. With the 1819 Adams-Onís Treaty, Spain ceded Florida to the United States. Nearly thirty years later, on March 3, 1845, Florida became the 27th state to join the union. Tallahassee, midway between the historic centers of Jacksonville in East Florida and Pensacola in West Florida, was named the capital. At the southern tip of the new state, Key West, which had developed into one of its most populous cities (and, by 1880, one of the richest per capita in the nation), became one of the first experiments in subtropical wood framed architecture. Between 1845 and the 1890, Florida remained largely rural and agricultural with vast areas of land from Palatka in the north to Key West at the southern tip, hosting very few settlements with any permanent buildings of note.

In the years leading up to the twentieth century, Florida had captured the imagination of the great train baron Henry Flagler, who envisioned Florida as a “Newport of the South,” replete with splendid hotels, mansions, and recreational facilities for the wealthy—all bathed in Florida’s winter light and fresh air and connected by a train line down the eastern seaboard of Florida. In 1888 he opened the Ponce de Leon Hotel in St. Augustine, his first hotel in Florida. By 1912 Flagler had dotted the east coast of Florida through Ormond Beach, Daytona Beach, Palm Beach, and Miami, with new communities and grand hotels as he traced the coast with railroad lines all the way down to Key West. In consultation (and sometimes competition) with his friend and fellow train magnate, Henry Bradley Plant, who brought rail service down the west coast of Florida, Flagler connected trains to ships between Miami, Nassau, and Havana, thereby reestablishing the north-south axis and Florida’s potential as a peninsular conduit and threshold. Miami was founded in 1896 with just over 300 inhabitants; a year later Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel opened as the first structure in the city to feature electricity, an elevator, and a swimming pool.

The introduction of the railroads allowed wealthy American industrialists, innovators, and entrepreneurs to dot the newly accessible Florida coasts with winter residences. Flagler commissioned Carrère and Hastings to create his own baronial White Hall (1902) in Palm Beach, James Deering commissioned Vizcaya (1916) in Miami, and John and Mable Ringling’s Ca’ d’Zan (1926) in Sarasota; numerous other luminaries from the Northeast and Midwest including Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, the Firestones, and the Vanderbilts followed suit. The state’s Spanish colonial history helped popularize Spanish-Mediterranean architectural fantasies during the 1920s. The Biltmore Hotel (1926), the Freedom Tower (1924) by Schultz and Weaver, the Everglades Club (1918) in Palm Beach by Addison Mizner, and even the city of Coral Gables, founded by George Merrick and incorporated in 1925, are all examples of these enthusiasms. Land speculation and building frenzies started across the state, but nowhere with greater gusto than in the newly opened southern regions.

Florida was the first state to enter the Great Depression and was poised with layers of potential that enabled it to be one of the first states to struggle its way out. Florida’s system of rail lines, airports, and highways were some of the most developed in the nation, easily crisscrossing flat terrain to reach national and international markets and hubs. With Dave Scholtz, a New Deal supporter, as the Governor of Florida starting in 1933, the state quickly took advantage of new federal policies and attracted federal funding for the construction of fire stations, police stations, post offices, seaports, airports, highways, and stadiums. These projects employed existing construction workers and immediately brought private investment in new houses, office buildings, and transportation. Statewide and local planning boards were created, as were highway patrols and parks departments.

The large, modern enclave of three-story hotels and modest, multifamily apartment rentals for temporary winter residents on Miami Beach—now popularly known as the “Art Deco District”—was built by a handful of developers and architects who referenced nautical and mechanical themes between roughly 1936 and 1940. Liberty Square Housing in Miami, the only New Deal (PWA) housing project in Florida for black residents, opened in 1937 and became a model of such projects in the nation. Just to the east of Tampa, Cypress Gardens opened in 1936 as a botanical garden that soon had thousands of visitors and developed into a themed water park, the first in Florida, where dozens of world records for waterskiing were achieved in ensuing decades. That same year, south of St. Augustine on Daytona Beach, where world land records for automobile speeds had been set for nearly a decade, the Daytona Beach Road Course was being established on one long flat strip of beach and one long strip of highway connected by sandy corners at either end. Over the course of the next several decades, this would become home of the Daytona 500 and the birthplace of NASCAR. Ludd Spivey, the president of Florida Southern College, a small Methodist college in Lakeland, Florida, signed an agreement for Frank Lloyd Wright to plan and construct the buildings on campus starting in 1938.

Florida’s bifurcated architectural subconscious during this period is perhaps best displayed outside the state at the great American World’s Fairs of Chicago (1933) and New York (1939). The modern and white Florida Tropical Home (1933) by Robert Law Weed, with its expansive outdoor terraces and numerous cantilevered shade structures, introduced Florida architecture as the picture of a modern world enhanced by technology. Only six years later, however, at the New York World’s Fair, the Florida Building (1939) took the form of a colonial Spanish Mission. While obviously offering a completely different stylistic reference than that of the Florida Tropical Home, the Spanish colonial Florida Building in New York also pointed toward travel and adventure. Its architecture and landscapes replaced the futuristic visions of play and modern technology in the Tropical Home with historicist visions of exoticism, orientalism, and romance. These two views of Florida architecture remain intertwined and often inseparable.

Florida was uniquely prepared to accept and benefit from the fluid conditions of World War II. It had the train tracks, airports, and highways needed for the movement of large numbers of troops, and particularly in Miami Beach, numerous hotels to house trainees. Its shores provided the location for new bases, like the Banana River Naval Air Station (now Cape Canaveral), MacDill Airfield in Tampa (now Central Command), Naval Station Mayport in Jacksonville (now the Naval Forces Southern Command), and the Homestead Airfield (now Special Operations South). After the war, soldiers were lured back to Florida in ever-increasing numbers with new suburban communities, amenities, and amusements being built as fast as resources allowed. In 1947, both the Everglades National Park and the water-themed amusement park, Weeki Watchi Springs, located north of Tampa on the Gulf Coast, opened to visitors.

As agriculture took hold in the center of the state, Florida’s architecture of the 1950s and 1960s developed along the east and west coasts, where enormous influxes of middle-class tourists arrived each winter. In the early 1950s, Paul Rudolph, a disciple of Walter Gropius at Harvard, opened his practice in Sarasota on the Gulf Coast, where he completed the light and experimental Cocoon House in 1952. On the Atlantic coast, the clean whiteness of the International Style predominated in a form enriched by neon, ebullient detail, and references to exotic, non-native tropical and subtropical environments to create what is commonly known as the Miami Modern or MiMO style of architecture. This may be best exemplified by the work of Morris Lapidus, whose Fontainebleau Hotel opened in 1954, marking the beginning of his long and illustrious career. Coconut Grove, just south of downtown Miami, was the site in the early 1950s of some of the first works by Florida architect Alfred Browning Parker (1916–2011), who continued to practice in the state well into the twenty-first century. In the Parker House #2 (1953) and #3 (1964), the architect developed an architecture that integrated the subtropical environment—the warm breezes and the vegetation—into interiors that opened nearly completely to the outside through walls of doors and windows. The angular lines and heavy brick materials found in Parker’s buildings were influenced by the work of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Water-based fantasy, entertainment, and housing experiences grew with the opening of the Miami Seaquarium (1955) on Virginia Key near downtown Miami that featured the Golden Dome Stadium (1958) by Buckminster Fuller and was the site of the hit television series Flipper in the 1960s. On the other side of Virginia Key, the Miami Marine Stadium (1963) featured motorboat events, shows, and races. In the 1960s, the unique, private, offshore community of houses built on pylons known as Stiltsville was flourishing in Biscayne Bay. Inspired by the enormous successes of these fantasy experiences in Florida, in the mid-1960s Walt Disney started quietly to amass thousands of acres of farmland in Central Florida near Kissimmee, which would open as Disney World in 1973.

During the late 1970s through 1990s, Florida experienced an enormous population growth, driven by increased Cuban immigration and an influx of people from other parts of the United States, even as it was troubled by racial tensions and drug trafficking. All of this laid the architectural and urban groundwork for the next several decades. In the southern part of the state, numerous well-protected, water-side, high-rise condominiums like the Palace (1981), the Atlantis (1982), and the Imperial (1983), all designed by Arquitectonica, appeared along Brickell Avenue in Miami, the new center of Latin American banking. Miami’s Bayfront Park began a decade of transformation by Isamu Noguchi into a dynamic setting for public gathering and entertainment. Philip Johnson’s complex containing a new Miami Public Library, Art Museum, and History Museum was completed in 1983 as one of his earliest postmodern creations. The Miami Tower (1987), a 47-story glass and steel building designed by Pei, Cobb, Freed and Partners, pointed toward the not-to-distant future of the urban core. In contrast to this new construction, the Miami Beach Architectural District (designated in 1979), formed from a collection of 960 historic buildings, became the first historic district in the nation to feature modern buildings. In the central part of the state, EPCOT, Walt Disney’s vision of an Experimental Prototypical Community of Tomorrow, opened to great fanfare, inviting millions to come to one place to see the cultures of the world and the technologies (largely American) that support globalization. And in the northern part of the state, near Pensacola, the young architects Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk completed the first phase of Seaside, Florida, a planned community that opened in 1981 with the motto “The New Town—Old Ways,” with an architecture largely based upon British Colonial details imported from the Bahamas.

While the next chapter of the architectural history of Florida—now the third most populous state in United States—has yet to be written, its trajectory seems to have been firmly established by its past. Water continues to play an important role as sea level rise is starting to have critical architectural implications; the nature of the state’s soft porous bedrock requires unique solutions. New works by Herzog and De Meuron, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, Nicolas Grimshaw, Norman Foster, Richard Meier, Bjarke Ingels, and many others certainly point in new directions and towards continued architectural innovations, even if they do not always provide answers to the most pressing questions. Moving forward, Florida remains, as it has for the last 12,000 years, an important nexus, poised geographically and culturally between the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean. The state continues to provide unique opportunities, stirred by dreams of new futures, requiring architectural visions to sustain its condition of almost being something else.

Writing Credits

John Stuart and David Rifkind

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