The building and grounds as once envisioned. The side garden brings to mind the one adjacent to Coral Gables’ City Hall.
I WAS quite excited to chance upon the image above, which at a glance both clarified that something about the Coliseum had always seemed a mystery to me, and provided an excellent clue to its resolution. A couple of months ago, I looked into and wrote about the history of this extraordinary building that was for so long an integral, if unheralded, part of the community. As the decades came and went it had been dedicated to a considerable variety of different purposes, and in one capacity or another touched a surprisingly large number of residents of Miami and South Florida. It had served as a striking and unusual backdrop to the unfolding story of our lives.
Yet what was it, really?
In retrospect, I researched and wrote up the last post, at least in part, because I sought to simply understand. The Coliseum seemed “unclaimed” by Miami, despite its grand size and close proximity, and discarded altogether by Coral Gables. I understood that it had first taken shape in the fertile imagination of visionary Coral Gables founder George Merrick, but based upon my experience of the rest of his “City Beautiful,” so consistent and impeccable in its exacting aesthetic, I had a difficult time picturing any place that this oddly monumental and rapidly fading structure might have once taken within that great and shimmering vision.
The Coliseum That Became.
OUR love for the Coliseum never necessarily had anything to do with making sense. It wasn’t any kind of dazzling architectural excellence, or intriguing “story” of forgotten dreams and faded glory, shadowing the place like a ghost, nor any other single quality that dazzled us, drawing us near and touching our hearts. In retrospect, the Coliseum called to mind a whale, noble and fine, somehow tragically beached upon the shores of time. It wasn’t necessarily here because it belonged; it quite clearly did not. But it came to belong because it was here. The epic crumbling building definitely had a tale to tell, but no means of sharing it. And though it was said to have once been a source of great-shared pride, any such days of glory, even back then, were long gone, lost even to living memory.
No one really understood its true purpose, or exact reason for being. Fortunately, however, such details have never been prerequisite to love in the human heart.
Perhaps the neglected monolith touched something within us that understands what it is to be loved and then cast aside, or to be simply left behind as others move forward, feeling forgotten or abandoned, most especially once the ravages of age have started piling up upon themselves. Part of us dreads the idea of reaching that inevitable state with no one near to consistently love us, tend to our needs, or otherwise give us the help we need. A natural sympathy might easily extend to the building, and we might have been inclined to love it simply because we could.
We love it no less even when it has begun literally coming apart, reaching a point at which massive chunks of elaborate antique plasterwork have started plunging randomly and occasionally down from somewhere high above, within its heavens, striking the floors upon which we walk with the thunderous force of small meteors. But still, any sentiment attached need not trump our native drive to stay alive, and we are then called upon to reckon with a problem.
For so many years, the building had given us all it had, retaining its stubborn ridiculous dignity despite the numerous reinventions foisted ungainly upon it, according to the ever-changing whims of need and fashion. During the years of WW II it had found use as a ground-based facility for pilots-in-training; thereafter, in 1947, a sports facility (“home court” for UM basketball games, hosting also prize fights, wrestling matches and roller derbies); then in 1950, following its purchase by the enterprise “Holiday on Ice,” become a popular ice skating rink, offering occasional shows and also the site of Miami’s unsuccessful stab at the creation of its own Hockey League. After the rink had run its course and been shut down, the building was purchased by Harold Vineberg in 1956, and a Bowling Alley opened its doors that enjoyed a good 22-year run. In its final incarnation the building served as a Sportrooms gym and recreational athletic facility. And that was all she wrote; in 1993 the old place met unceremoniously with the wrecking ball. The wrecking ball won, as it always does, and in no time at all, the Coliseum was no more.
No services were held.
I am excited to share with you the drawing above, published for the first (and possibly only) time in October of 1927. If you give it just a moment of your time, you might feel a “click” of “A-Ha!” and understand at least how the building was first pictured in the imaginations of George Merrick and his creative team, featuring prominently architect Phineas Paist and the developer’s relations, the Finks, Uncle Denman (the city’s Artistic Director), and cousin H. George (a prolific architect who designed over 400 different homes in the early Gables.) The drawing, much more effectively than might any number or words, *shows* us through illustration the high place once assigned the Coliseum in “the very idea of the Gables,” and the unique role it was once intended to take as a shared point of community pride. It was “community,” after all, that remained at the very heart of George Merrick’s vision for his Coral Gables, the unifying framework for its rich and fantastically diverse whole.
As explored in my last post on the subject, the project was all-but stopped short by the real estate “bust” that hit Miami with such jarring force in 1926, even before the killer storm blew in from Hell itself, under cover of darkness and essentially unannounced. The shrieking winds quite literally shredded, smashed, twisted and tore to pieces the last tattered remnants of Miami’s extraordinary “Boom” years. The winds and pitching surf that night took with them well over hundred human lives, the city’s wealth, as a municipality and also family by family, and its final reserve of dignity.
The World’s Miami, October of 1927. A desperate effort to “sell” a Magic City fallen flat on its face, “with just enough history to make the rest intelligible.”
(With grateful thanks to the University of Miami Digital Collection)
The image was found hiding in plain sight, in a fascinating publication titled The World’s Miami, published in October of 1927 and posted online as a public service as part of the University of Miami’s celebrated Digital Collection. The illustration really had no business being published at all, though I’m certainly glad it was: by that point both the drawing and its message had become, quite sadly but undeniably, lie. Dedication ceremonies for the Coliseum building, in essence the original vision seen, reduced to skeletal form, were held the following month; there can be little doubt that the author knew full well that the facility and grounds as pictured– inspired and *alive* in that almost boozy warmth and “can do” spirit of the heady boom-time years–was never to be.
It’s easy to understand why the image would have thereafter been so scarcely seen, even in historical circles. It would not only have embarrassed the visionaries in its extravagance, but also tended to strip the building that was, of any respect it might otherwise garner in its own right.
Yet the heart of the vision, at least, remained. And under the circumstances that was no small thing; the achievement gained was nothing short of heroic. Many are the boom-time fever dreams that in the end came to naught, after all, and the Coliseum had been a large and luminous dream of the first magnitude. It was “homeless” from the beginning, you see, for the very atmosphere in which it had been conceived and first given tentative form– one lighter, more expansive, alive with endless possibility, and so much more kind– no longer existed by the hour of its groundbreaking. The party was over; even the dream itself had quickly begun to grow faint and recede in memory. Yet as if to insult, the sun kept on rising and setting, day after day. Life went on. Damn it. Life went on.
But to their great credit: they dreamed big, and they tried. They tried!
(With grateful acknowledgment to the University of Miami Digital Library Collection, an indispensable community resource.)