31 Iconic Miami Landmarks That Haven't Been Destroyed...Yet
Few cities are less concerned with preserving their history than Miami. Skip town for almost any amount of time, and you’re guaranteed to find a few familiar standbys missing when you get back. Among the latest casualties sacrificed to feed Miami’s insatiable appetite for reinvention: the circa-1912 bar Tobacco Road; train-station-turned-music-venue Grand Central; and the bayfront Miami Herald building, recently razed to make way for a proposed casino hotel project.
In its brief 120-year lifespan, however, Miami has produced enough striking towers, architectural oddities, and cultural keystones to make any city envious -- and, despite the whims of itchy-fingered condo developers, plenty are still going strong. Here’s a look at 31 Magic City landmarks that have evaded the wrecking ball.
Though it didn’t actually arrive here until 1925, St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church -- better known nowadays as the “Ancient Spanish Monastery” -- is advertised as the oldest building in the Western Hemisphere. The 12th-century structure, originally located in Segovia, Spain, was dismantled in the early 20th century, and brought to the US by William Randolph Hearst, who sought to install it at his San Simeon estate (the inspiration for Citizen Kane’s Xanadu). That never happened; instead it languished in a Brooklyn storage facility for 20 years before ultimately finding its way to Miami, where it still functions as a church and pretty ideal spot to get married.
This monument to ‘80s extravagance had the distinction of appearing in both the opening credits to Miami Vice and in Scarface, which used it for exterior shots of clueless kingpin Frank Lopez’s lavish residence. Arquitectonica, the firm behind many of Miami’s most dramatic towers, designed the glass building, which is instantly recognizable from its so-called “palm court” -- a five-story, open-air cutout that houses a red spiral staircase, jacuzzi, and a palm tree. The style didn’t catch on. There’s no other building like it in Miami, or anywhere else.
Bacardi relocated its US headquarters down US 1 to Coral Gables in 2009, but thanks to a swift mobilization by preservationists, this Caribbean-inspired modernist classic survived the loss of its titular tenant. Designed in 1963 by Cuban architect Enrique Gutierrez, with tile walls hand-painted by Brazil’s Francisco Brennand, the main building is part of a broader complex that also includes the equally stunning 1974 annex known as “The Jewel Box.” The National YoungArts Foundation acquired the buildings in 2012, and has since converted them into an educational campus with assistance from Frank Gehry.
To visit the oldest surviving structure in Miami that’s not an imported 12th-century monastery, head to the very end of Key Biscayne, where four bucks a person will get you onto the beach at Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park. Originally built in 1825 -- and reconstructed in 1846 after it was ransacked during the US’ war with the Seminole Indians -- the Cape Florida Lighthouse is a full 50 years older than Miami itself. Due to its out-of-the-way location, however, it’s a sight rarely seen by many city residents.
5. Carol MartCarol City/Miami Gardens
You won’t find this low-rent flea market in any tourist guides, but for hip-hop, the spot's iconic. Rick Ross (who grew up in the neighborhood), DJ Khaled, and countless Miami rappers of lesser renown have shot videos in the Carol Mart parking lot, which can resemble an auto show on weekends, when local car enthusiasts bring out their “donks” -- a style of customized sedan (elevated suspensions, booming sound systems) that originated in Miami. The 58-year-old structure, formerly known as the 183rd St Flea Market, is rumored to be set for demolition soon, so if you’re in the market for gold grills or the new Ice Billion Berg CD (and who isn't really?), get there quickly.
For a city driven by nightlife, Miami is woefully thin on live music venues. Rock clubs here seem to open and close faster than you can plug in a aux cable. Churchill's is the lone exception to this rule, an endearingly scuzzy pub and punk hangout that’s been going strong since 1979. You could describe it as the CBGB of Miami... if only CB had lasted this long. Despite its recent sale to a new owner, the place is as sloppy and un-Miami-like as ever -- an encouraging sign it will remain amidst the imminent gentrification of the surrounding neighborhood.
The most famous and instantly recognizable of Ocean Drive's pastel palaces, the Colony Hotel is a pivotal piece of Miami Beach history. Designed in the ‘30s by Henry Hohauser, it was one of the first Art Deco hotels to rise along the beach, inspiring further adoption of the architectural style the area’s now known for. Today, it’s hardly the best or most popular hotel on the strip, but it’s definitely the most photographed, thanks to the electric blue neon lights which illuminate its facade at night.
This 35ft tall sign, from skincare brand Coppertone’s iconic late-‘50s ad campaign, has been a Miami fixture for generations. Its current location, at 7300 Biscayne Blvd, is actually its third home, though. It originally appeared on the Parkleigh Building at Fifth Ave and Biscayne Downtown in 1957, then moved to West Flagler St in the '90s, before landing at its current coordinates in 2011, where it continues to be a classic slice of Americana... and a permanent reminder that ad campaigns can be kind of weird.
When Miami is inevitably swallowed by the sea, The Coral Castle will probably be the last structure standing. Constructed from limestone by Latvian immigrant Edward Leedskalnin between 1923 and 1951, this modern-day Stonehenge is a true marvel of engineering, and a subject of much speculation regarding the means by which it was built. Whatever the methods, Leedskalnin’s beautifully failed attempt at wooing back his lost Latvian love is now one of Miami’s best roadside attractions. (Note, in this case, “Miami” means Miami-Dade County, not the city itself -- the Coral Castle is closer to Key Largo than South Beach.)
10. Domino ParkLittle Havana
The entirety of Calle Ocho in Little Havana is worthy of landmark status -- especially now that the winds of gentrification and speculation are swirling deeper into its midst. (The National Trust for Historic Preservation last year included the neighborhood in its list of the USA’s 11 Most Endangered Places). One neighborhood icon that’s not in jeopardy is Maximo Gomez Park, better known as Domino Park. As long as there are elderly Cuban men in Miami (which there always will be), this shrine to the Caribbean’s favorite table game will fill up daily with the sounds of dominoes swirling against tables and spirited shouting en Español.
Built in 1925 as the headquarters of The Miami News, the Freedom Tower developed its present identity in the 1960s, when it operated as a reception center for refugees fleeing Cuba. Modeled after the bell tower of Spain’s Seville Cathedral, it’s probably the most prominent example of the Mediterranean Revival-style which typifies early Miami architecture. Today, the structure is part of the campus of Miami Dade College, which uses it to house offices, a contemporary art museum, and the Cuban Exile Experience, a permanent display which highlights the Freedom Tower’s past as “the Ellis Island of the South.”
Physically and symbolically, no building looms larger over Miami Beach than the Fontainebleau. Said to have been the biggest hotel in the world when it opened in 1954, it was soon the most recognizable, as movies including Jerry Lewis’ The Bellboy and the James Bond classic Goldfinger broadcast images of its opulent lobby (“a demented French-provincial, Liberace-does–Boca Raton décor,” as one modern critic put it) and pool deck. Its association with the Rat Pack, and specifically Frank Sinatra, who shot several movies of his own here, further cemented its status. Like Miami Beach itself, the hotel declined in the ‘70s and, thankfully, resurrected itself in the ‘80s, when it was the setting for this scene from Scarface and for most of the sleeper classic Police Academy 5: Assignment Miami Beach. Today’s Fontainebleau offers a similar mixture of epic scale and populist programming. La Ronde, where Sinatra and Dean Martin once performed, is now LIV, where Lil Wayne and Justin Bieber now perform, and that awesome pool deck is still the biggest attraction.
13. The ForgeMid-Beach
Renowned as a hangout for vacationing mobsters, The Forge has been the steakhouse of choice for the snowbird crowd since it was opened in the ‘60s by Al Malnik (a lawyer closely tied to Meyer Lansky -- as well as Michael Jackson, but that’s another story). An earlier restaurant was converted from an actual blacksmith’s forge on the site, which dated back to the 1930s. Owner Dino Phillips apparently anticipated today’s trend of naming restaurants after their site’s previous industrial uses by about 80 years. In a bid to shed its old-school image, Malnik’s son Shareef recently updated the place, adding fashionable farm-to-table fare like quinoa pancakes with fig marmalade, and a lobster peanut butter & jelly sandwich. The steaks, mahogany interiors, and massive wine cellar, supposedly home to 300,000 vintages, remain, which goes to prove some things aren’t worth changing.
Opened to the public in 1924, Hialeah Park is iconic for horse racing (and Miami’s most historic sporting venue). Reopened in 2011 after a 10-year hiatus, it now hosts “quarter horse” races and a casino with slots and poker -- though the thoroughbreds that once brought the crowds during tourist season are long gone. Still remaining on the lush, 200-acre grounds are Hialeah Park’s famed flamingo flock. A symbol of South Florida depicted on the state’s lottery tickets and in the opening credits of Miami Vice, as well as movies like 1989’s Let It Ride, the pink birds were the first such colony in the United States. Like so much of Miami, they are actually imports from Cuba.
Miami's been diligent about preserving its historic theaters. Downtown Miami’s Olympia Theater and the Tower Theater in Little Havana, both of which date to 1926, have been restored in recent years. On the beach, the circa-1935 Art Deco Colony Theater remains one of the most appealing structures on Lincoln Road. The Jackie Gleason Theater (originally the Miami Beach Auditorium, now branded by Live Nation as “The Fillmore Miami Beach”) is probably the most famous of Miami’s vintage performance spaces, and also its most endangered. The South Beach landmark, which once hosted the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants as well as its namesake comedian’s TV variety show, was recently saved after plans to expand the adjacent Miami Beach Convention Center called for its demolition.
16. Joe's Stone CrabSouth Beach
Every visitor to Miami should be required to try two things before flying home: Cuban food, and, provided your trip falls in-season, Florida stone crab claws. For the last 95 years, the best (and for a while, only) place to get this sweet-tasting shellfish has been Joe’s Stone Crab. Originally a wooden shack, Joe’s is now the second-highest-grossing independent restaurant in the US, despite only operating from October to May. For a classy dinner experience in service-poor South Beach, nothing really compares. Those with allergies or aversions to shellfish should note that crabs are not all Joe’s menu is known for: its key lime pie has been called the world’s best, and a superb fried chicken platter still costs a mere $6.95.
17. Mac's Club DeuceSouth Beach
One by one, Miami’s landmark dive bars -- Jimbo’s Place on Virginia Key; Brickell’s Tobacco Road; Fox’s Lounge in South Miami -- have bit the dust. That leaves Mac’s Club Deuce on the Beach as the last man standing when it comes to the cheap domestic beers/pool tables/vintage neon sign combo. But what a great man it is! Opened in 1926, it was bought in 1964 by Mac Klein, who kept the place until he died at 101. Today “the Deuce” looks about the same as it must have when Klein bought it -- with the exception of some neon additions courtesy of Miami Vice, the cast of which was once part of Club Deuce’s famously eclectic clientele. As one former bartender eloquently put it: “Mac's is like walking into the bar in Star Wars.”
For a window into a more high-falutin' era of the Magic City’s past, visit the Biltmore, the only Miami hotel designated as a National Historic Landmark. Built during the first Miami real estate boom in the 1920s, it was one of the city’s most glamorous destinations in its early years, even used as an auxiliary White House by Franklin Roosevelt on his annual Miami vacations. The hotel is also home to some of Miami’s most famous ghosts: mobster Thomas Walsh, killed here in 1929, is said to haunt an elevator. A short splash from the Biltmore (but not to be confused with the hotel's own impressive pool) is another '20s-era Coral Gables icon, the Venetian Pool. The original water park, it's still the country's largest freshwater pool, perhaps most famous for the aquatic galas (synchronized swimming, diving demonstrations from Tarzan actor Johnny Weissmuller) held here in the ‘30s. At 820,000 gallons, it's so big, gondolas once rowed around it.
19. Miami Jai-Alai3500 NW 37th Ave, Hialeah
For a truly surreal MIA experience, few places in town match Miami Jai-Alai. The “world’s fastest game,” jai-alai was once a major attraction in Florida, bringing thousands of bettors daily to frontons across the state until cheating scandals, the arrival of major sports franchises, and various other factors led to its demise. Well, ALMOST. That the sport is still played today is solely on account of a 2003 Florida law which granted table-gambling licenses to premises with existing betting licenses -- horse and dog tracks, or jai-alai frontons. In a scene of almost Kafka-like absurdity, players (many from the Basque region of Spain, where the sport was invented) compete in physically demanding games watched by a small sprinkling of spectators, their primary purpose to provide a loophole for the profitable games played on the other side of the wall. In a uniquely Miami touch, these include not only poker and slots, but also dominoes.
What was once one of the country’s most unique sporting venues is now Miami’s most epic ruin. Built to host speedboat races in 1963, Miami Marine Stadium also became a major venue for concerts and boxing matches. However, the unique structure seemed doomed from the start -- a speedboat racer died the day it opened, and it was condemned in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Today, the stadium is still an attraction... for graffiti writers, the destitute, and, particularly since the advent of Instagram, amateur photographers lured in by its stunningly forlorn state and panoramic skyline views. Plans to rehab the property were made public in 2014 by a group including Gloria Estefan; however, these appear to now be on hold.
21. Miami Tower100 Southeast 2nd St, Downtown Miami
It’s no secret that illegal activities fueled the spectacular growth of Miami’s skyline in the 1980s. And that’s definitely true of Miami Tower, originally known as the CenTrust Tower. The I.M. Pei-designed building, lauded for its three-tiered design and elaborate exterior illuminations, opened in 1987 as the headquarters for CenTrust, a Miami bank that had one of the most spectacular arcs in US financial history. Three years after the tower’s completion, CenTrust was seized by the US government and its management was accused of using company assets to fund personal purchases of art, yachts, and Oriental rugs. The building has changed hands, and names, several times since then, but remains one of the focal points of Miami’s cityscape.
22. The Mutiny Hotel2951 S Bayshore Dr, Coconut Grove
Today, the Mutiny is a placid long-term stay hotel with an unremarkable restaurant. Back in Coconut Grove’s ‘70s and ‘80s heyday, it was the epicenter of cocaine sales and consumption in South Florida, home to an infamous members-only nightclub that brought South American drug kingpins, crooked cops, deposed despots, CIA agents, and the actors who played them all together in one place, and the real-life inspiration for the dens of iniquity in Scarface and Miami Vice. According to former owner Burton Goldberg, George Bush, Jackie O, and Senator Ted Kennedy were customers, too. “The Mutiny was like a no-man’s land, sort of a sanctuary,” says one former narc who worked the place. “There wasn’t many fights, because everybody was armed.” Which was sound logic in the '80s.
For decades, a massive, naked man has welcomed commuters and tourists entering Miami along Interstate 95. Taking a page from Burt Reynolds, neophyte carpet entrepreneur Don Bailey literally put his shop on the map in 1973 when he erected billboards depicting him lounging on one of his wares in the nude. Bailey, now in his 70s, still owns Don Bailey Flooring -- which has four other South Florida locations -- with the iconic image of his bare-assed, 37-year-old self still looming over each.
Looking at Miami’s extensive array of skyscrapers today, it’s hard to fathom that One Biscayne Tower was the skyline’s crown jewel just over 30 years ago. But cue up the opening sequence of Que Pasa, USA? -- the bilingual, late-‘70s Miami sitcom starring future Scarface actor Steven Bauer -- and there it is, lording over a dowdy cityscape about as impressive as Newark. Times have changed but One Biscayne, designed and built in the early ‘70s by a group of Cuban exiles, remains a symbol of prosperity for many Miami Cubans.
Opa-locka is an independent city just west of North Miami with a peculiar past (and present). Currently, its government is the subject of a massive FBI corruption probe. That something fishy was going on inside City Hall hardly seems out of character; it’s possibly the strangest municipal building in the country. Opa-locka was created in the ‘20s by Glenn H. Curtiss, an aviation pioneer who had the entire original town designed in the Moorish Revival style, the largest such example of that architecture in the West. City Hall, the centerpiece of Curtiss’ bizarre Arabian fantasy, looks much the same as it did in 1926, but changes are likely coming. Miami-Dade County has just urged the state to declare a financial emergency, and consider taking over all city operations.
26. Royal CastleGladeview
Royal Castle was Miami’s answer to White Castle, a slider emporium with its own birch beer. At its peak, the chain had more than 175 locations across the Southeast, but it liquidated all of its stores in the ‘70s, save two lonely Miami outposts purchased by former employees. The last of these is owned by James Brimberry, said to be the first black man hired by Royal Castle in 1964 -- a reminder of Miami’s not-too-distant segregated past. Brimberry’s Royal Castle still makes its own birch beer, and now stays open 24 hours, serving up greasy comfort all night long.
27. The club formerly known as RolexxWestview
No survey of Miami would be complete without at least one strip club -- the city has the most diverse selection of breast-friendly bars in the U.S. The warehouse-sized Tootsie’s Cabaret and King of Diamonds have quickly become 305 icons, but have only been in their current locations for 10 and eight years, respectively (hardly landmark status there). For a vintage Miami strip club experience, head to the club formerly known as Rolexx (later, Club Lexx), newly rebranded as Club Climax. In the early days of Miami hip-hop -- back when 2 Live Crew’s Uncle Luke ran the city, not Rick Ross -- this is where future video vixens came to get discovered, and producers came to break the newest bass records. While the big-baller/make-it-rain crowd has mostly defected to K.O.D., Lexx still earns points for the legendary BBQ sold in its parking lot. Miami is the only place in the world where it’s not unusual to get in a car and drive to a strip club for a rib sandwich, then drive back home without dropping a single $20 on a dance.
28. StiltsvilleBiscayne Bay
If you’ve ever sailed around Biscayne Bay, you may have noticed a cluster of wooden shacks on the open water out by Key Biscayne. Today, a handful of structures remain from what was once a community of 27 private weekend retreats and public social clubs. These houses on stilts started popping up in the ‘30s, skirting mainland gambling and drinking laws, but began to fall into disuse after a combination of government regulation and repeated damage from hurricanes made them untenable. Having miraculously evaded collapse, the seven remaining structures these days function primarily to shade cormorants, and as a canvas for the imagination. Writers including Carl Hiaasen -- Miami’s Tom Wolfe -- have set novels here, and Miami Vice frequently used the seaborne shanty town as a backdrop for aquatic plots.
29. Uncle Tom's BBQCoral Gables
Miami is not necessarily a BBQ town, but there are a handful of smoke joints worth a try. Shorty’s in South Miami, People’s in Overtown, and Shiver’s in Homestead are all landmarks in their own right, but Uncle Tom’s BBQ in Coral Gables makes this list thanks to its iconic neon sign -- and because it nearly didn’t survive. Originally opened in 1948, Uncle Tom’s was condemned by the city a few years back, after falling into disrepair following a fire. In 2014, new ownership restored the place, bringing back the classic sauce recipe from Uncle Tom’s original owners.
If you’ve only got time for one meal in Miami, and no plans to come back, make it Versailles. Sure, there are places with better food, but this classic Cuban cafeteria is the Miami experience distilled into 5,000sqft. The “unofficial town square of el exilio,” Versailles has presided over coup plots, premature Castro deathwatches, and political power plays since 1971. Even as the '80s brought with it cocaine and new shady construction to Miami, Versailles stood, unwavering, in the powder-nosed faces of laundered development money. And besides the sit-down restaurant, which still serves up some of the city’s best ropa vieja, picadillo, and other comidas tipicas (don’t let anyone tell you otherwise), Versailles is also home to the most famous of Miami’s ventanitas -- those ubiquitous walk-up windows serving Cuban coffee, pastelitos, and other small bites.
31. Villa VizcayaCoconut Grove
Miami is awash in extravagant waterfront homes, but none more impressive than the city’s original mega-mansion, Villa Vizcaya. Built on a 180-acre estate between 1914 and 1922 by tractor mogul James Deering, Vizcaya pioneered the Mediterranean Revival style that’s so ubiquitous in early South Florida architecture. Unlike the private palaces on Star Island, you don’t need to know someone to experience its grandeur: it’s been a public museum since 1953, which means there's no way this grandiose mansion is getting torn down anytime soon. Maybe some things gold can stay?
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Jesse Serwer is a former Miami resident who returns to his favorite city every few months and asks, "Where am I?" Follow him @jesseserwer.