When Hurricane Andrew tore through Southern Florida 20 years ago this week, one of its casualties was a structure that survived the storm but not the aftermath: Marine Stadium, a towering grandstand with a sail-like concrete roof and the waters of Virginia Key for a stage, withstood Andrew but was quickly declared unsafe by its owner — the city of Miami — and slated for demolition.
So ended a nearly 30-year run for a venue that, by virtue of its aquatic setting and angular shape, was quintessentially Florida. Marine Stadium, capacity 6,500, began a new phase as condemned ruin and graffiti hive. That half-life has lasted ever since.
It may be coming to an end. With the city’s assent, a group called Friends of Marine Stadium is trying to raise $30 million to return the modernist colossus to Miami’s live-events circuit as a historic landmark and rescued cultural jewel. The Friends have two years to reach their goal or risk losing their contract to redevelop the property, in which case it’s not entirely clear what would become of Marine Stadium.
“Some people have alleged that it’s a white elephant,” says Donald Worth, a Miamian who co-founded of Friends of Marine Stadium with a group of fellow architects, designers, preservationists, and business people. “I think the opposite is true.”
Worth sees the reinvigorated stadium hosting everything from regattas to movie shoots to nighttime concerts, all against a panorama encompassing Miami skyline and coastal nature preserve.
That splendid picture can be a tough sell given the stadium’s dereliction. “We got laughed at,” says Worth. But he says he has turned many a skeptic by taking them to the site — through the littered shell, up the stairs, along a curving concourse and, lastly, out from under an acre of suspended concrete and into the full sunlight at water’s edge. “People just gasp,” he says. And not in horror.
“It’s a great work of engineering,” says Randall Robinson, a Fort Lauderdale city planner and co-author of MiMo: Miami Modern Revealed, a survey of the city’s middle-20th century modernist architectural works. Robinson, who is not affiliated with the restoration effort but supports it, counts Marine Stadium as a high point of the Miami Modern style: “The way the roof cantilevers so far outward and appears so thin — and it’s done in such an aesthetically pleasing way — is what’s so special about it.”
The stadium was designed in 1962 by Cuban émigré Hilario Candela, who has seen his creation rise, thrive, and show off — an Elvis Presley beach party movie, Clambake (1967) was shot there — before falling into decline and, finally, becoming an object of renewed appreciation. Candela today sits on the Friends of Marine Stadium board and has told his colleagues — only half in jest — that an angel must be watching over the site: It has dodged at least two appointments with the wrecking ball since Hurricane Andrew.
The first came shortly after the city condemned it and accepted a $1 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to knock it down. But when the property’s insurer conducted an inspection of the facility, they found it quite intact; Marine Stadium had come through Hurricane Andrew more whole and stable than previously thought. Miami officials returned money to FEMA and decided to consider their options.
That conversation lasted, on and off, for another 15 years. The stadium continued to decay and amass graffiti, molting into an urban art exhibit and settling into a state of what MiMo author Robinson calls “romantic decrepitude.”
”We see many modern ruins now and there’s special attraction to that because modern architecture wasn’t supposed to fall into ruin, but we know that’s not true,” says Robinson.
City officials, however, weren’t anxious to showcase the old venue as an exemplar of ruin porn, however photogenic. In 2008, Miami issued one of its periodic master plans for local development. The plan for Virginia Key called for an end to Marine Stadium, a prospect that alarmed preservationists. Friends of Marine Stadium came together quickly in response. “If our group did not show up,” says Worth, “this building would have been gone within six months of our forming.”
There’s no guarantee at this point that it won’t come down eventually. In 2014, the Friends have to present an acceptable redevelopment plan and be at, or very close to, the $30 million mark. Nearly all of the money will have to come from private sources.
Worth likens the effort to another Sisyphean revival: the transformation, in New York City, of a rotting elevated train track into the celebrated High Line public park. “There are really several similarities,” he says, “It’s a grassroots organization taking on a large-scale, complex urban project that nobody thinks they have a shot at.”
The Friends’ next step is to solicit major donors for the bulk of the funding, and also talk with companies about the possibility of purchasing naming rights to the refurbished venue. From there, the campaign will go more public in a bid to attract larger numbers of small donors to cover the balance.
Reconstruction, if and when it happens, is expected to take two years. In the meantime the stadium continues to attract scrawlers, gawkers, and other urban adventurers. A group of acrobatic “free runners” shot a video of themselves jumping, flipping and wall-scaling all over the grounds, and have dedicated their eye-popping film to the restoration effort.
Worth says there are plans to integrate some of the existing graffiti into the refurbished stadium, perhaps by saving original wall fragments. But much of it will have to go. “Not all of it is good,” he says. Robinson, who first visited the stadium around 1990 for a concert by the European pop singer Basia, applauds the effort “to give [the stadium] a new purpose.”
“Clearly, it hasn’t been an easy thing but I think it’s something that really needs to be done,” he says, “because the alternative is to tear it down, and that would be a shame.”