By Doctor Paul S. George
“Taken as a whole, Bayfront Park is a small paradise which offers its wares to young and old, rich and poor, alike.”
- Richard Rundell, The Miami Herald, c. 1950.
Miami’s beginnings as a city date to the arrival of Henry M. Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway in April 1896. The city incorporated three months later with a population between 700 and 800.
Miami’s first park was on land owned by the railroad and located in front of Flagler’s magnificent Royal Palm Hotel. Called Royal Palm Park, this green space served as the tiny community’s first gathering place, the venue for a wide array of athletic contests, political gatherings, cultural happenings, and religious meetings. Located on Biscayne Bay (whose waters stretched as far west as today’s Biscayne Boulevard) Royal Palm Park covered an area from SE 2nd Avenue to the bay and from SE 2nd Street to East Flagler and SE 1st Streets. The park contained a pavilion and later a bandshell. A portion of the greenspace was also used as a baseball field, and for track and field events.
Other parks followed, including Lummus Park, northwest of downtown on the Miami River, and Riverside Park, west of the river in the new Riverside neighborhood. Both opened in the early 1910s. In the second decade of the twentieth century, Miami grew faster per capita than any other city in the United States, its population soaring from 5,500 to approximately 30,000 by 1920. Civic leaders began discussing the creation of a large waterfront park on public land, accompanied by a marina and broad boulevard. They envisioned these elements running along the bay from today’s East Flagler Street to the Omni area, 19 blocks to the north.
Until then, the bay front was in the hands of the Flagler interests and was host to numerous vessels, fish houses, and a growing numbers of yachts. The downtown bay front also included Henry Flagler’s Dade County Fair Building, which hosted a wide variety of gatherings, including group conventions and horticultural exhibits. The Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, Dade County’s oldest organization, occupied a house resting on pilings in the bay. Ornate Elser Pier, the city’s preeminent amusement venue, offered a dance hall, shooting gallery, and peep shows at the foot of East Flagler Street.
Following a long and acrimonious legal battle between the City of Miami and the Florida East Coast Railway, which was ultimately decided by the Florida Supreme Court, the city moved closer to the realization of a waterfront park. In 1922, it acquired from the Florida East Coast Railway a long strip of waterfront corresponding to today’s Bayfront Park. The purchase price was $1.2 million. The lone area excepted from this purchase was the site of Elser Pier.
As the idea of a waterfront park drew closer to reality, the city requested citizen input into the kind of space they desired. Captain Tom Newman, a boat salvager, restaurateur, and civic activist, proposed a “functional” park with plenty of recreational and entertainment opportunities for visitors. Specifically, Newman recommended a children’s playground, picnic tables, tables for chess and checkers, tennis courts, a pit for horseshoe pitching, a library, a marina on its northeast edge, and a convention hall on the north side of the green space near Biscayne Boulevard. Warren Henry Manning, a noted landscape architect from Cambridge, Massachusetts, proposed a passive park with little built environment: just a yacht basin for the northeast corner, and a band shell in the southern portion of the proposed facility.
The city embraced Manning’s plan. In 1924, the final piece of waterfront land came under public ownership with the purchase of Elser Pier for $340,000.
That same year, construction of the bay front park began. The proposed site would contain 62.5 acres. The remaining acreage included water, walks, and parkways. A retaining wall was built and the pumping of bay bottom, whose depth ranged from two to fifteen feet in the location of the proposed park, began. Pumping went on day and night for seven months until today’s park had been created. The project’s completion was marked by the construction of a creosote timber seawall. In April 1925, piers for a city yacht basin were driven into the shallow bay bottom immediately north of the park.
The new bay front park opened in 1925. It was a promising time in the city’s history. Miami and all of south Florida were immersed in a real estate boom unparalleled until the early twenty-first century. The new park was dotted with Coconut, Royal, and Washingtonian Palm trees, along with Hibiscus hedges and Mango, Royal Poinciana and Tropical Almond trees. A wide pedestrian promenade ran from the foot of East Flagler Street and the newly constructed Biscayne Boulevard to Biscayne Bay. Shrubs and trees decorated the walkway’s median. Midway through the promenade a circular bed was planted with an effusion of exotic flowers made possible by Miami’s subtropical climate. Benches for weary strollers and people watching lined the walk. Lamps at its outer edges were lit at night. Other paths and walkways meandered through the park.
The new waterfront facility also included a small bandstand two hundred yards southeast of the promenade. In September 1926, a fearsome hurricane, with winds in excess of 130 miles per hour, smashed into the Miami area. The storm damaged many of the striplings and shrubs in the park, and even lifted vessels out of the bay and onto the park and Biscayne Boulevard west of it. Many of the newly-constructed buildings across from the park suffered damage from the winds and the water surge caused by the hurricane. The economic decline following the collapse of the boom earlier in 1926, deepened in the storm’s aftermath.
The city worked diligently to rebuild Bayfront Park. New trees and plants replaced those that had been damaged and destroyed by the storm. Construction of a beautiful Rock Garden was completed in 1927. The garden would become one of the park’s most popular elements. Located near the water’s edge, the garden featured a grotto overlooking a large pond stocked with goldfish and water lilies, which often hid bullfrogs. A rustic wood bridge carried pedestrians across the water. A special favorite of children, the Rock Garden was renovated and enlarged in the late 1930s and the early 1940s. The expanded rock garden measured seventy-five feet by 175 feet. It contained a fountain at the entrance and additional varieties of water lilies.
The Band Shell
The city replaced the original bandstand in 1928 with a larger band shell relocated from Royal Palm Park which, along with its namesake hotel, was closing. One month after its placement in the park, the transplanted band shell was destroyed by a fire whose origins remain unknown. A new band shell was erected immediately after the fire at a cost of $15,000; it featured minarets and seating for 4,000 people. The new facility was completed in time for a national convention of Shriners, which was held in Miami because the city contained ample accommodations for fraternal groups like the Shrine. For the Shriners’ parade, large papier-mache Sphinxes lined the western edge of the park.
Other large groups, like the Lions, followed the Shriners, while, by the 1930s, Bayfront Park had become Miami’s “front porch,” a popular venue for musical presentations, political gatherings, holiday happenings, civic celebrations, and religious services, as well as a restful place for Miamians and visitors of all ages. Located across Biscayne Boulevard from South Florida’s emerging skyline, the park proved an attractive destination for many.
An interesting addition to the park was the Prinz Valdemar, a Danish brigantine which had sunk in the turning basin in front of Miami’s harbor in 1926, helping to bring down the boom. The ship was re-floated and towed to the northern edge of the park, where it served as a floating aquarium and restaurant until the beginning of the 1950s.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
An early brush with notoriety for the park came with the assassination attempt on President-elect Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 15, 1933. Roosevelt had been vacationing in southeast Florida at the time, and gladly answered the request of local leaders to address the hard-pressed citizens of Miami during the depths of the Great Depression. Guiseppe Zangara, an Italian immigrant and self-styled anarchist, had come to Miami from New Jersey in 1932. Zangara learned of Roosevelt’s scheduled appearance in the park just one day before, and promptly purchased an $8 pistol from a downtown pawn shop with the intent of killing the political leader. On the day of Roosevelt’s appearance, Zangara arrived at the park early and secured a seat close to the band shell.
Roosevelt arrived at the band shell in the rear seat of a large open touring car. He propped himself up on top of the seat and, in typically cheery fashion, addressed the estimated 4,000 people gathered there. Roosevelt announced that he was concluding “a wonderful twelve day fishing trip in Florida and Bahamian waters.” He bragged about the fish he caught, but promised he would not “attempt to tell a fish story.” Not all was idyllic, however, for the incoming President “put on ten pounds…and one of my first official duties (as chief executive) will be taking the ten pounds off.” Roosevelt closed by telling the audience that he looked forward to coming to Miami and south Florida in the following year. Just moments after Roosevelt concluded his remarks, shots rang out from the audience.
Six people were hit by bullets, including Chicago Mayor Anton Cermack, who sustained a mortal gunshot wound and died nearly three weeks later. Roosevelt was spared, probably because one of the members of the audience pushed Zangara’s arm as he began to fire. The angry crowd quickly pounced on Zangara. He was taken from the park to the Dade County Courthouse for interrogation and booking. Zangara pled guilty to first degree murder at a second trial held following the death of Cermack, and died soon after in the electric chair at Raiford, the state prison near Starke, Florida.
World War II
With the onset of World War II, the United States Navy commandeered the waterfront, including all of the piers and the park. Navy PT (Patrol Torpedo) boats were based at the piers as part of the US campaign against German submarines operating off the southeast Florida coast. The park served as a recreation center for the troops training in Miami. It also served as the eastern terminus for weekly parades that proceeded each Saturday from the Dade County Courthouse. The parades, large numbers of men and women in uniform marching with military equipment, were efforts to raise support for the sale of war bonds. After stories began circulating of prostitution in the park involving local teenage girls and Naval personnel, the city cut down a hedge obscuring a portion of the area from Biscayne Boulevard.
In 1943, two years prior to the end of the war, the county erected a monument near the terminus of the parade. The Dade County War Memorial, a cream-colored, Depression Moderne styled structure featuring an eagle at the top listed the names of Dade Countians who had thus far lost their lives in World War II, covered by tinted blue glass. Carved into the south side of monument are these words of Franklin Roosevelt: “It is far better to die on our feet than to live forever on our knees.” The city announced in the late 1980s that it planned to replace the monument with a new one containing the names of everyone who had died in the war since the original lists had been inscribed in the masonry. Strong citizen opposition to this proposal in 1990, led to the creation of a revamped memorial containing the names of more than 500 Dade Countians who died in World War II.
The Navy’s presence in the park caused extensive damage to the facility. In the war’s aftermath, the Navy paid the city more than $28,000 for damages to vandalized steel fences, littered ponds, grass and plant neglect, bleached benches in great need of painting, and holes in the ground that made it perilous to walk in parts of the park.
DDuring the war, work began on a social hall for the entertainment of military officers. The complex, consisting of several joined buildings, was built incrementally from about 1942 until 1950 and became known as the Bayfront Park Auditorium. In April of 1945, the unfinished complex hosted a memorial service for President Franklin Roosevelt. Vice Admiral Walter S. Anderson of the Seventh Naval District, whose headquarters were in Miami, delivered the eulogy. More than 1,000 men and women of the Seventh Naval District, as well as many family members, heard Anderson’s address. Three U.S. Navy chaplains also participated in the service for the nation’s commander-in-chief. The District’s band played musical selections. WIOD radio, located in the Miami News Tower, across the street from the social hall, broadcast the entire service. Bayfront Park was also the venue for other memorials to the fallen President. They were held in the bandshell and included music from the orchestra of Caesar LaMonaca, remarks from Miami mayor Leonard K. Thompson, a eulogy from Circuit Court Judge, George E. Holt, and a benediction from the Reverend Florence D. Sullivan, pastor of GESU Catholic Church.
The federal government turned the complex over to the City of Miami in 1950. The city greatly expanded the auditorium, installing offices, adding air conditioning, a sound system, and a kitchen to serve 2,500. In subsequent years the auditorium became a popular venue for a host of events, including concerts, meetings of area Boy Scouts, flower shows, and labor union gatherings. At the other end of the park the band shell, now nearly twenty years old, was considered unsafe.
In 1945, Walter DeGarmo, an accomplished architect who grew up in Coconut Grove, designed a Greek-styled amphitheater for the park, with seating for 6,000. The design called for an imposing colonnade at the rear of the seating area. The cost was estimated at $250,000. This plan was never implemented.
The New Bandshell
Band shells had been an integral part of Bayfront Park since the late 1920s, when Caesar LaMonaca, a talented composer and band leader who had performed earlier in the Hollywood, Florida band shell, was hired by the City of Miami to provide musical performances in its new downtown park. Initially, LaMonaca and his orchestra performed thrice weekly; later, they reduced their performances to Wednesday and Friday nights and, finally, to just Friday. LaMonaca typically began his performances with his own composition “Miami, Playground of the U.S.A.,” and closed the evening with a tune from a Broadway musical comedy “to give the audience something to go out humming.” In between he played the music of John Philip Sousa, Arthur Pryor and other popular musicians of the era.
In 1947, the city condemned and closed the aging band shell, but a vociferous public outcry forced its reopening -- until it was closed for good at the end of the 1940s to make way for the construction of a long-awaited replacement. In 1947, the city condemned and closed the aging band shell, but a vociferous public outcry forced its reopening. LaMonaca continued to play until it was closed for good at the end of the 1940s to make way for the construction of a long-awaited replacement. Called the R.C. Gardner Band shell for a colorful Miami City Commissioner and grocer, the new facility was designed by Harold McNeil and built for $80,000. The structure measured 120 feet in diameter; its stage was sixty feet across, large enough to accommodate 500 performers. An orchestra pit in front could hold more than 150 musicians. With seating for 4,000, the band shell was a smaller, less expensive version of the earlier-proposed facility.
The new band shell opened on July 28, 1950, the city’s fifty-fourth birthday, as well as the fiftieth birthday of the Miami Women’s Club. An estimated 12,500 people, more than three times the capacity, were in attendance. The show lasted from 7:30 to 10:00 p.m.. Miami pioneer Isidor Cohen cut the four tier tall birthday cake. Another pioneer reminisced about the city’s early days. United States Congressman George Smathers, in the midst of a heated race for the United States Senate against the incumbent, Claude Pepper, denounced war profiteers. R. C. Gardner, businessman and elected official, for whom the new facility was named, beamed on stage after receiving praise for this lengthy service to the city of Miami. Songbird Deloras Barron sang, as did the Sandpipers quartet. Movie stars Frances Langford and husband Jon Hall were in attendance. Not surprisingly, the program opened and closed with musical presentations by Caesar LaMonaca and his orchestra.
One proposal in the immediate postwar era would have spelled disaster for Bayfront Park. A new era of prosperity, along with the determination of shoppers to spend their pent up wartime savings, brought great pressure on downtown’s ability to handle traffic and parking challenges. In 1947, the Miami City Commission considered a proposal from a business group to convert Bayfront Park into a parking lot, with a smaller waterfront park east of it. Strong public opposition to the idea caused the Commission to table it. Even after defeat, discussions about adding a parking element and convention center in the park continued through the end of the 1940s.
Although neither the parking nor the convention center plans reached fruition and despite a public outcry, the park did become the site of a new $1.2 main library facility in 1951. Two stories tall, with mezzanine levels, the marble clad building was airy and bright. The new building was the first central home for the city’s fledgling library system after several temporary venues in previous decades. Its location in the park, however, was unfortunate since it blocked the view of the bay from East Flagler Street. The outcry against the new building in the park prompted the state’s Garden Clubs to pressure the Florida Legislature to pass a law by the mid-1950s which prohibited the construction of additional structures in Bayfront Park.
In October 1950, while construction was underway on the library, the park hosted 75,000 delirious University of Miami football fans that came to the city’s “front porch” to greet their heroes as they returned from a stunning upset of the Purdue Boilermakers. The previous week the Boilermakers had become the first team to defeat the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in four years, and the Hurricanes had been given little chance against Purdue.
In 1952, Dr. J.M. Gaetani, Italian Consul in Miami, organized a Citizens Committee for Interamerican Observance to erect a statue of Christopher Columbus in Bayfront Park. The city contributed a site in the park in front of the library. Gaetani’s committee undertook a lively fundraising campaign. The Committee commissioned Count Vittorio de Collertaldo of Rome to execute the statue, which was composed of bronze and stood nine feet six inches in height atop an 1,800 year old African marble base. The statue was dedicated on Columbus Day 1953 in a stirring ceremony.
Seven years later, in 1960, another important monument was dedicated. The Torch of Friendship in the northwest corner of the park underlined Miami’s status as a gateway to the Caribbean and Latin America. In 1964, the Torch was rededicated in memory of President John F. Kennedy, who had lost his life a few months earlier to an assassin in Dallas, and who had appeared in Bayfront Park at a Presidential campaign rally in the fall of 1960. At the time of the rededication of the Torch, the downtown library hosted a traveling exhibit on the life and presidency of JFK, with several Kennedy family members on hand. The plaza encircling the torch has served as a gathering point for demonstrations and protests in subsequent years.
By the 1960s, downtown had entered a period of steep decline. Retail operations and residents fled following the rapid growth of suburbia and its attendant shopping centers and malls. Downtown’s declining fortunes were reflected in the park. Visitorship to the fabled front porch of Miami dropped precipitously; among those who did come was a growing number of homeless. The park, however, continued to host special events. Santa Claus appeared every Thanksgiving Friday to herald the beginning of the Christmas season, and a giant birthday cake during the same season honored the birth of Jesus Christ. Political rallies continued to take place at the band shell, as well as the annual Royal Poinciana Festival held each June. In addition, Caesar LaMonaca’s band continued to perform twice weekly. The plaza just south of the park was dedicated, as Chopin Plaza by the local Polish-American Club in the early 1960s. It became a gathering place for Poles demonstrating during times of unrest in Poland.
Plans were presented to resuscitate the park and downtown. In 1964, city voters approved a bond issue providing for construction of a convention center in the park to bring more activity to the facility. Miami Mayor Robert King High, a strong proponent of the idea, wanted the facility to serve as a cultural center, too. As the idea matured, it became part of the ambitious designs to revamp downtown, promoted by world famous planner Konstantinos Apostolos Doxiadis. The plan called for a 7,000 seat convention and cultural center in the park, just east of the library. A walkway running parallel to the park would reach along the bay front north to the Omni area 1.5 miles away. The ensuing controversy pitted environmental forces against government officials who argued that it was critical for reviving downtown Miami. Ultimately, however, the voters of Miami rejected an $18.7 million bond issue in 1970 for landfill along the bay front and a convention center in the park.
Great changes for the park, its waterfront, and downtown were already underway by then and would intensify in the following years. By the 1960s, the new Port of Miami was rising on Dodge Island across from the northern edge of Bayfront Park. In 1970, the old yacht basin was converted into the Miami Marina, a quiet area of live aboard boaters, charter fishing boats, and two restaurants. Plans were moving forward to convert the site of the earlier port, north of Bayfront Park, into another waterfront park; by the mid 1970s this became Bicentennial Park. In the early 1980s Theodore Gould, a colorful developer from suburban Washington, D.C., built the Miami Center, a tall office complex, and the Pavilion Hotel, an upscale hostelry, just south of Bayfront Park. The Rouse Corporation replaced the Miami Marina with the Bayside Marketplace in the mid-1980s. This $93 million dollar shopping complex overlooking the waters of Biscayne Bay took up half of the park’s existing acreage.
The park continued to evolve. In 1977, the city officially renamed the green space the “Bayfront Park of the Americas” and undertook a $1 million beautification project, planting large numbers of new trees. The following year, State of Florida environmental officials rejected a request by the city of Miami to expand the size of the park by filling in two acres of Biscayne Bay north of the Miami Marina.
Further changes were still ahead for the park. In 1980, the city approved $10 million for the redesign of Bayfront Park according to the plan of Isamu Noguchi, a revered sculptor regarded as one of America’s great twentieth century artists. Noguchi envisioned the revamped park as a “village green.” His plan called for new amphitheaters, a splendid fountain at the end of a promenade flowing off East Flagler Street, a laser facility, the relocation of busts of Hispanic leaders and the statue of Christopher Columbus to other areas inside and outside of the park, and the demolition of the library to make way for the promenade. Its implementation began in 1981. Ultimately, the project cost more than $40 million, with much of the money secured by grants.
One of the first “victims” of the plan was the R.C. Gardner Band shell, which had already fallen into disrepair. Caesar LaMonaca, the person most closely associated with it, had ended his lengthy tenure as the city’s musical maestro in 1977, after falling from the podium during a performance and breaking his hip. He died in his early nineties several years later.
By the end of the 1980s, the new park was completed. Now called the “Mildred and Claude Pepper Bayfront Park,” for southeast Florida’s revered Congressman and his devoted wife, the park contained all of the major elements in the Noguchi plan, plus, in its southeast corner, a stirring monument to those Challenger astronauts who lost their lives in the tragic mishap in space in January 1980. Today the park operates under the auspices of the City of Miami’s Bayfront Park Management Trust, and is the venue for a variety of special events and concerts. Nearly twenty years after the Noguchi overhaul, the Trust is working closely with consultants and a landscape architectural firm to implement innovative ideas for the park, including dramatic new lighting, a café, and major redesign projects. The park’s future is bright. It will continue to serve as the City of Miami’s “front porch,” and is about to become an oasis for thousands of new residents in the condominium towers rising in downtown Miami. The park will serve a critical role in an emerging center city.