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The Death (and Life?) of Miami's Marine Stadium

The all-concrete stadium has been rotting since the early 1990s. Can it be saved? Should it be?

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Robby Campbell

The trip across the elevated platform to the room that hangs from the roof of the Miami Marine Stadium, some 100 feet in the air, is perilous. The platform itself is rotted, and the last step to the suspended boxcar-like room traverses a bright hole in the walkway. It’s an unsubtle warning that the trip you’re making is stupid.

Once in the room, you’re still not safe – or, at least, you don’t feel safe. The ground is sturdier, but the structure is corroded and seems as if it is about to crash to the ground, bringing the stadium’s great concrete roof down with it.

But that doesn’t happen, and for a moment you manage to appreciate the beauty of where you are: perched high inside one of Miami’s great structures – perhaps its greatest – with a view of the downtown skyline across Biscayne Bay to the northwest and, straight ahead, a large man-made basin backstopped by the green fringe of Virginia Key.

A scrawl of all-caps graffiti on the edge of the open-air room reads, “TAKE A STEP FORWARD.” It’s a punk’s dare – a step forward means a long plunge into the stands below – but it also speaks to this moment in the history of the Miami Marine Stadium.

Designed by Cuban-American architect Hilario Candela when he was a 27-year-old devotee of Mid-Century Modernism, Miami Marine Stadium opened on Dec. 27, 1963, as a venue for power-boat racing. Young and enamored with Frank Lloyd Wright and Corbusier, Candela saw the building as his opportunity to give Miami a structure that captured its own young spirit.

“Miami was just growing and it coincided with a freedom of imagination that, from a cultural point of view, our society had,” Candela says. “People realized that Miami had a destiny that was unique, that was related to tourism and to the water.”

Candela’s design was striking. Built entirely of poured concrete, the stadium featured a 6,500-seat grandstand that rose steeply from the water to a row of taut, back-leaning columns. From there a roof of folded plates angled up sharply before swooping back down toward the water, the dramatic cantilever supported by eight columns near the rear of the stadium. In defiance of Miami’s celebrated yet punishing sunshine, the overhang shaded most of the grandstand from noon on. 

The stadium hosted hundreds of spectacles through the years, including power boat races (until powerboats became too powerful and outgrew the basin, which is the size of the National Mall in Washington, D.C.), political rallies, religious sunrise services, and music concerts, with performers playing on a floating stage.

As the decades went by, the stadium deteriorated under City of Miami ownership. In 1992, after Hurricane Andrew hit South Florida, the city pushed for the demolition of the building, requesting $1 million from FEMA to do the job. But when an engineering study proved that the structure was sound, the stadium was spared, closed to the public, and left to fall into disrepair.

Between 1992 and 2007, the stadium transformed into a sanctuary for graffiti artists, who blanketed the bare concrete structure in spray paint, tagging everything from individual seats to expanses of the roof. Technically vandalism, many of the vivid murals and elaborate nametags could pass for commissioned pieces in Miami’s Wynwood gallery district.

The stadium remains a canvas for graffiti writers today. In fact, when I interviewed Candela on site for this article, the rattle and hiss of a tag in process provided the aural backdrop to our conversation. Candela, now in his late 70s, didn’t mind.

“I think [the graffiti writers] are keeping the interest of the building alive,” he says. “They are artists ... and they think the building is a wonderful canvas, and I salute them in that.”

In fighting to preserve the stadium over the last several years, the architect has learned how to spot a tactical advantage.

In 2008, after the city presented a master plan for Virginia Key that did not include the Miami Marine Stadium, Candela banded together with preservationists Donald Worth and Jorge Hernandez, a professor of architecture at the University of Miami and the vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation (NTHP), to form the Friends of Miami Marine Stadium. The all-volunteer non-profit eventually prevailed upon the city to grant the stadium historic status and got it included on the National Trust’s headline-grabbing “11 Most Endangered Historic Places” list, in 2009.

After years of strenuous activism, Friends of Miami Marine Stadium (FMMS) now has the stadium on track for restoration. It’s raised $10 million, including $3 million in public funds, and is trying to seal a deal with the city that would give the organization an exclusive right to raise an additional $20 million for a full renovation. FMMS also got the Heat Group, which operates American Airlines Arena, the Miami Heat’s downtown home, to agree to operate the stadium after its restoration.

Candela’s plans for the restoration are as bold as his blueprint for the building was in the early ‘60s. In addition to renovating the stadium itself, he also wants to turn a paved parcel of land to the southeast of the structure into a public park and entice a private entity to build a marine center to its northwest.

“I believe this could be the headquarters for boating and boaters,” Candela says. “Not the corporate headquarters – the soul headquarters.”

Whether Candela’s particular vision will come to pass remains to be seen. There’s a lot of money left to raise and political bureaucracy to navigate and decades of empty spray-paint cans and beer bottles to pick up. Still, the stadium’s prospects for restoration look good, and the actual writing on the wall is promising. Someone has recently painted the word “HOPE” over one of the entrances to the stadium concourse and, across two consecutive steps of the grandstand, the imperative “REVIVE” stands out in bright white.

All photographs by Robby Campbell.

Top image: The stadium's architect, Hilario Candela, takes a seat inside his 49-year-old creation.

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