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Volume 40, Number 5September/October 1989

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Opa-Locka Rising

Written and photographed by Larry Luxner

Not far from the intersection of Sharazad Boulevard and Ali Baba Avenue stands an astonishing building with three minarets, four domes, gaily painted arches and an ambiance right out of The Thousand and One Nights. Under an unrelenting sun, urban planner Ghasi al-Gadi describes how local activists saved the structure from demolition and have since restored the building to its former glory. The setting could be Damascus or Baghdad, but it is instead Opa-locka, Florida, a curious little wedge of suburban Miami that boasts America's largest concentration of Moorish revival architecture.

City leaders are capitalizing on their community's unique architectural theme, and have begun a campaign to rescue some 75 structures built in Opa-locka during the 1920's. Twenty-four of the buildings are now on the National Register of Historic Places.

"It's really surprising to see these Arabesque buildings in the middle of Florida, buildings which have come out of the Arabian Nights," says Fusun Mutgan, an urban planner from Turkey who came to Florida as a tourist and now works in the restored Opa-locka City Hall at 777 Sharazad Boulevard.

Like many planned cities, Opa-locka sprang from the dreams of one man - in this case, aviator Glenn H. Curtiss. A talented tinkerer who never finished high school, Curtiss found success at designing and racing motorcycles, then quickly moved on to airplanes. In 1910, he formed the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company and developed the famous "Jenny" biplane - an idea so successful it allowed Curtiss to buy out the Wright Brothers and retire at age 40 with more than $35 million in the bank.

But it wasn't long before the great Florida land boom of the 1920's came along, and Curtiss couldn't sit still. Within a few years, he and a new business partner, James H. Bright, had bought up some 90,000 hectares (220,000 acres) of Dade County - including much of the present-day Miami International Airport - and had created two new communities, Hialeah and Miami Springs. Spanish architectural themes characterized the first of these; the second was based on the look of the Indian pueblos of the American Southwest.

Curtiss's third real-estate venture, however, centered on the village of Opatishawockalocka, a Seminole Indian name that - depending on who translates it - means "big island in the swamp covered with many trees" or "the high land north of the little river on which there is an old camping place." In any case, Curtiss shortened the name to Opa-locka. And to market Opa-locka to speculators "up north," he improvised on his favorite theme - The Thousand and One Nights.

"They set everything up like what they imagined a Muslim city to be, so at the terminus of Opa-locka Boulevard, you'd see City Hall rising out of the shimmering desert," says architectural consultant Michael Maxwell. "These other buildings would lead you up to the grand palace. Once you arrived, you'd find, below the minarets, large rooms where you would go to meet the salesman. The room was decorated with beautifully stenciled stars and moons."

According to Maxwell, the multimillionaire's fascination with Arabesque design was sparked by the 1924 silent film The Thief of Baghdad, starring Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. and Julianne Johnston.

"After the movie, a lot of people caught on to Moorish revival architecture," Maxwell told Aramco World. "The style was immensely popular, even though its gross exaggeration of domes and minarets runs contrary to Islamic architecture, which only has domes for certain ceremonial places. In Opa-locka, everything had a dome and a minaret. It provided a fantastic setting to an otherwise sandy area that Americans thought looked like the Arabian desert."

To heighten his city's Middle Eastern ambiance, Curtiss named all the streets after characters and places in The Thousand and One Nights: Baghdad Avenue, Ahmad Street, Sesame Street, Ali-Baba Avenue and the main street, Sharazad Boulevard the name shortened from "Scheherezade," which Curtiss's friends claimed they could neither pronounce nor spell.

Curtiss also convinced the Florida Seaboard Air Line Railway to run its main track through Opa-locka, and even celebrated the Orange Blossom Special’s arrival with an Arabian Nights Festival the likes of which had never been seen before in Dade County. Local historian Frank S. Fitzgerald-Bush, in his 1976 book A Dream of Araby, recalls the event.

Potted palms by the hundreds, and potted flowering plants of every available kind, were placed about the city's main buildings and along its streets. Opa-locka bore a remarkable resemblance to an Arabian village at festival time when the train arrived on that Saturday afternoon of Jan. 8, 1927 Turbaned, sheikhs on snow-white chargers rode to greet the train, from which alighted, perhaps somewhat shaken, the Governor of Florida, John W. Martin, the president of the Seaboard Air Line Railway, S. Davies Warfield, and a score or more of officials and notables.

Apparently, the entrepreneur's publicity stunts worked. Before the Florida land boom went bust, Curtiss's firm, under the direction of New York architect Bernhardt E. Muller, built more than 100 buildings, of which 75 are still standing. "The homes tended to be modest, in that they were small bungalows of about 75 to 95 square meters each [900 to 1,000 square feet]," said Maxwell. "They were really no different from the homes being built in Coral Gables or Hialeah, except that they had the architectural style of The Thousand and One Nights."

Among those early dwellings is the Haislip House at 1141 Jann Street, one of the only three private homes in Opa-locka whose original minaret is still intact. According to county records, the house sold for $1,275 upon completion in 1926. Four years ago, it was purchased for $27,000 by Pablo Pavon, a Spanish-speaking refugee who survived the 1980 Mariel boatlift from Cuba and later went into the construction business.

"I'm not paying anything to restore it. I'm doing the work myself," said Pavon, who lives in the house with his wife Marta and their two children. The Dade Heritage Trust Fund calls Pavon's dwelling "a significant example of the architectural design theme of the 1920's Florida land-boom suburb of Opa-locka, the largest single collection of Moorish revival architecture in the United States."

Sadly, following the 1929 stock market crash and Curtiss's sudden death a year later, following an appendix operation, Opa-locka began its long economic decline. One fleeting return to fame interrupted the slide in June, 1937, when Curtiss's fellow aviator Amelia Earhart lifted off from Opa-locka Airport for her round-the-world solo flight, only to disappear forever during her final leg over the Pacific Ocean.

The city's current mayor, Robert Ingram, says it took years for Opa-locka to recover from the Great Depression and the subsequent loss of military installations after World War II.

"In the 1940's, we had a military base here. Then the base closed down, and the economy almost collapsed," he said. "For about 40 years it was in a state of decline. Now it's beginning to stabilize."

Today's Opa-locka has 17,000 residents, and despite its opulent beginnings the city is now among the poorest of Dade County's 26 municipalities. Like the others, it is troubled by social problems.

"One way of helping poor people is to build pride, and we involved an awful lot of people in the restoration of City Hall," said architectural consultant Maxwell, recalling that public outcry five years ago over the planned demolition of Curtiss's original City Hall finally gave Opa-lockans a rallying point, and in its own way, fostered civic involvement.

"The city administration wanted to tear down City Hall and build a new building. At that time, only one small wing of the building was occupied, the roof leaked terribly, the domes were gone, the plumbing didn't work, the 90-foot tower had rotted and was in the process of falling off, and they didn't have any idea what to do with it.

"We argued it was cheaper to fix the old City Hall than build a new one. The community actually rallied to float bonds to pay for this."

After five years of labor-intensive restoration work and a $1.5-million bond issue, City Hall was rededicated on December 3,1987, at a ceremony headed by the flamboyant Mayor Ingram, who likes to remind visitors that he has the same last name as actor Rex Ingram, who played the giant genie in the 1940 remake of The Thief of Baghdad.

Not unlike the old administration building, which was inspired by a description of Emperor Kosroushah's palace in "The Talking Bird" tale of The Thousand and One Nights, the restored building features four domes and three minarets, as well as a large octagonal tower overlooking Opa-locka Boulevard and the palm trees below. Painted mostly, white, the structure boasts numerous; porches, balconies, wood balustrades and keyhole arches, as well as a beautiful yellow fountain in the palm-shaded courtyard and a new meeting room for city commission.

"I think it's great for a small city like. Opa-locka, with limited resources, to be involved in such a restoration," says Ankara-born Fusun Mutgan. Her experience as an urban planner includes the restoration of the famous Casbah of Algiers under the sponsorship of UNESCO and the Algerian Ministry of Tourism.

Also employed at 777 Sharazad Boulevard is Ghasi al-Gadi, a 28-year-old Palestinian with a bachelor's degree in archeology from the University of Jordan and a masters in urban planning from Southwest Texas State University. Both he and Mutgan work in Opa-locka's Safe Neighborhood Improvement District, a program aimed at preventing crime among the city's youth.

With City Hall restored, local officials are now turning their attention to yet another of Curtigs's domed creations - the Hurt building, at the northwest corner of Opa-locka Boulevard and Ali Baba Avenue. Miami-based Grafton Architects Inc. is involved in an $800,000 project to convert the former hotel into an office and retail complex by the end of September.

"On the inside, we're going with more modern construction," says project manager Ward Grafton. "The space under the dome will be open, where originally it was a flat ceiling."

On the outside, visitors' eyes are drawn to the "Dream Wall," a colorful mural depicting scenes from Scheherezade's tales and painted on a construction fence by 100 local school-children.

And finally, after years of neglect, Opa-locka will restore its train station, one of the most exquisite Moorish revival buildings of all. Now owned by the Dade Heritage Trust Fund, the station will be moved to the corner of its lot and restored once the Hurt Building is completed.

"We're trying to rebuild the city," says Mayor Ingram. "We've seen how successful places like Disney World have become, and so we've held fast to the Arabian theme."

In keeping with that fanciful Middle East motif, Opa-locka has begun hosting its own three-day Arabian Nights Festival each May, at which bellydancers, musicians, fashion designers and comedians entertain the crowds, and vendors ply the streets selling everything from olive-wood camels to traditional Arab foods. This year, for example, the festival was kicked off by a Saturday-morning Arabian Nights Fantasy Parade led by Blair Underwood, star of the popular television series LA Law. It was colorful and corny, and it brought out the crowds. Some 10,000 people attended.

Had Glenn Curtiss been there, he would have approved.

Larry Luxner is a free-lance writer based in San Juan.

This article appeared on pages 2-7 of the September/October 1989 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1989 images.