Exhibition review by Marvin Aguilar
Currently on view at HistoryMiami, downtown, is Opa-locka: Mirage City, a rich exhibition focused on the City of Opa-locka's fantastical Moorish Revival architectural history. Beyond the famous South Beach Art Deco buildings and Coral Gable's Spanish Revival style are the elegantly ornate and exotic buildings of Opa-locka not too far away from Miami Dade College North Campus. Curator Jose R. Vazquez, Associate Professor of Architecture at Miami Dade College, presents the exhibition with two main goals in mind. The first is to explore the dynamic architectural history of Opa-locka, dating back to the 1920s. In collaboration with the Lynn and Louis Wolfson II Florida Moving Image Archives at Miami Dade College and the University of Miami Libraries, Special Collections, the exhibition features original architectural drawings, newspaper articles, photographs, and film clips, alongside architectural models that Vazquez and his students constructed.
Vazquez's second goal is to ignite community interest in preserving the city's few remaining buildings. The juxtaposition between old images with recent photographs taken of Opa-locka's not-so-splendid current state encourages new efforts to preserve and restore the city's significant architectural heritage.
The exhibition is divided into five themes (City of Dreams, City of Beauty, City of Tales, City of Convenience, Cinematic City), each exploring a substantial motif in Opa-locka's founding in 1926. Wall texts describe the city, before any development, as a mirage amongst wilderness raised on sandy soil and covered with hammock trees. Local Native Americans originally named the area "Opa-tisha-wocka-locka" meaning "a big island covered with many trees and swamps." Wealthy businessman and early aviation pioneer Glenn Hammond Curtiss (1878-1930) financed several estates in what would later be known as Opa-locka. With the assistance of noted architect Bernhardt E. Muller (1878-1964), the two men revisualized the city as a North African fantasyland with its palace-like administration building and a main street functioning as an open market similar to a Moorish bazaar.
At the time, Moorish Revival Architecture was part of a larger aesthetic movement known as "Orientalism;" European and American artists and architects were allured by North African and Near Eastern cultures. The Moorish architecture of Southern Spain and Northern Africa as well as the famous tales from 1001 Arabian Nights inspired the city's foundation. Vazquez notes that Curtiss and Muller also followed the architectural philosophy of "The City Substantial," that is to create a city that connected ideals of "self-sufficiency, functionality, and beauty." The intention was to develop a unified city where the civic buildings, residential houses, and natural landscape formed a sense of civic pride amongst its citizens. Thus the city's buildings would serve as livable works of art. By 1928, Opa-locka had one hundred and five lavish buildings with colorful horseshoe arches, decorated domes, minarets, and outside staircases. Throughout the city, streets were named after themes from Arabian Nights, such as Sultan Avenue, Sesame Street, and Aladdin Street. Curtiss's city included several shops, hotels, a golf course, a zoo park, an airport, and a train station. While many of the buildings where demolished in the decades that followed, twenty of the remaining buildings are now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The exhibition includes a variety of objects to better visualize Curtiss and Muller's "City of Dreams." Photographs portray the earliest moments in Opa-locka's civic and residential buildings. Some of the most impressive pieces in the exhibition are original perspective drawings from the Muller Collection at the University of Miami. These intricately drawn illustrations, done in color pencil and watercolor, depict a harmonious integration between art and urban function. However, several of the drawings' designs were never executed. Curtiss's early death and the hurricane of 1927, followed by the Great Depression seized any future development. Some of Muller's drawings are hung next to several constructed models done by Vazquez and his students. The most elaborate model is a large-scale rendering of the original administration building with a Persian-style garden and an amphitheater. Originally the city's main real estate sales office, the building became Opa Locka's city hall after the its incorporation on May 14, 1926.
A portion of the exhibition explores Opa-locka as the "Cinematic City." In the early twentieth-century, the American film industry was fascinated with the Middle-East and looked at Arabian themes for Hollywood movie projects. The Thief of Bagdad (1924) is often cited as a key inspiration for Opa-locka's theatrical architectural setting. One of the projected video clips, from the Wolfson Archives, includes a scene from an Arabian-themed carnival held in the city during the 1950s.
The show's light blue painted walls invite viewers to enter a fantastical world of flying carpets, magic lamps, heroes, and villains. A glass case displays color illustrations from Arabian Nights and Moorish Revival Architecture in postcards and prints. Also displayed is A Dream of Araby: Glenn H Curtiss and the founding of Opa-locka (1976) by Frank S. FitzGerald-Bush- the only known monograph on the founding of Opa-locka. Interactive educational elements consist of a "Did you know?" trivia game, an oversized photo puzzle, and a small table of various bottled ingredients with a printed recipe guide for cinnamon rice.
The exhibition ends with a video by the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation, a non-profit that strives to revitalize the city's exceptional history through secured funds, civic engagement, and educational opportunities. Photographs of Opa-locka in its current state by the organization's Project Manager Germane Barnes also enhance the organization's mission to trigger new interest in preserving the distressed city. Though Opa-locka is faced by many economical challenges, new developmental strategies will hopefully bring better housing, working facilities, and community involvement that once existed in the enchanted city. The exhibition successfully emphasizes the brief yet important history of Opa-locka's splendid architecture, the inclusion of modern photographs and video is a starck comparison that encourages visitors to look beyond the negative reputation the city has obtained in the last decades, and imagine what Opa-locka was and could become again.