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Exhibition Hopes To Unveil Opa-locka's Hidden Architectural Gems

When you think of architecture in South Florida, the first styles which come to mind might be Spanish Revival or Art Deco. Moorish Revival probably doesn't top that list -- unless you're familiar with Opa-locka.

In the mid 1920s, famed aviator Glenn Curtiss joined forces with architect Bernhardt Muller to develop what they imagined a Muslim city would look like based on the Arabian Tales. That city became Opa-locka. Curtiss was also influenced by the 1924 silent film The Thief of Baghdad. The buildings he and Muller designed featured minarets, huge domes and brightly-colored arches that can make the city feel more like the Middle East than South Florida.

Right now, an exhibition about Opa-locka's unique architecture is on display at HistoryMiami.

Jose Vazquez is the curator of the Opa-locka: Mirage City exhibit that features original drawings and historic photographs. Vazquez teaches architecture and history at Miami Dade College. His students designed 3D and digital architectural models used in the exhibition.

Although Vazquez works on the MDC north campus which is just south of Opa-locka, he says when he would ask his students if they had visited the city, they usually responded with blank stares.

"The students didn't know what I was talking about," said Vazquez.

And, he says, if they were familiar with Opa-locka, they viewed it negatively.

"So I set out to change those assumptions," he said.

Vazquez says he did that by taking his students to see the city for themselves.

"Invariably, the reaction that I got from them was one of surprise like, 'I would never have suspected that a place like this existed in Miami. It's so different.'"

Vazquez says he, like so many others, stumbled upon Opa-locka by accident  and was amazed by what he saw. The first building to catch his eye used to serve as the City Hall.

Credit Marva Hinton
This 3D model replicates the building that once served as Opa-locka's City Hall.

"I had never seen something like that, perhaps with the exception of Disney Land," said Vazquez. "There in the middle of the city you had this building that looked so different. I had to stop the car, park and look around."

Architecture As Advertising

Vazquez says Curtiss chose this form of architecture to better market the area.

"Glenn Curtiss went looking to make his new city stand out, to be different from other places that were being developed throughout Miami like Coral Gables that definitely has more of a Spanish Revival style," said Vazquez. "In selecting Islamic architecture or Moorish Revival architecture, he was making a very clear architectural stand, using architecture as a kind of billboard to advertise his new city."

The advertising worked.

"The sales were pretty steady during the first years that they were promoting the city," said Vazquez. "Unfortunately, the economic downturn of 1927 and the hurricane of 1927 really had a very negative impact on the development of the city."

The project was further stymied when Curtiss died in 1930. He had been the principal backer of the development. The Great Depression soon followed further interrupting Curtiss' vision.

Currently, 20 of the buildings built by Curtiss and Muller are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Over the years there have been various efforts to maintain the structures, but Vazquez says more needs to be done.


"In particular in Miami, a city that has such a short history, architecture is so important in order to preserve our sense of self," said Vazquez. "When we look at architecture, in particular people in Opa-locka, when they look at these buildings, they can sort of see a reflection of who they are, and they can project that to everybody. There is no other place in the United States that can lay claim to [having] a whole city designed in one single style. A whole city that is designed in this Moorish Revival Style is quite unique, and I think that by itself is worth preserving."

Vazquez says he believes restoring these buildings from the 1920s can actually help Opa-locka today. In recent years, the city has been plagued by crime and corruption. Vazquez says he hopes the exhibit will spark a new sense of civic pride among the city's residents.

"This is not a nostalgic look to the past," said Vazquez. "It's not about looking at a fabulous, bygone era. The past is pretty much present, and it's through the understanding of that past that the city can move forward, and this is sort of like a springboard to that future of possibilities that Opa-locka has."

The Opa-locka: Mirage City exhibit runs through September 8 at History Miami. Admission to the museum is $8 for adults and $7 for students and those 65 and above. Members of the museum and children under six are admitted for free.