A 22 year-old Cassius Clay (soon to take the name by which we still know and love him, today) celebrates his victory as Heavyweight Champion over Sonny Liston earlier that evening in Miami Beach, and mugs for a snapshot being captured by friend Malcolm X. Even though the youth had already earned substantial celebrity, he would not have been welcome at “White” establishments, so he’d invited his friend to join him for a casual celebration at his favorite hangout. When the boxer visited the swank nightclub, he generally allowed himself a glass of Orange Juice. That special night, flush with intoxicating victory, he splurged on a heaping bowl of his favorite ice cream!
The re-creation of the once-ruined Hampton House, at 4200 NW 27th Avenue in Miami’s deeply troubled neighborhood of Brownsville, happening even now and targeted for completion next year, is little short of a miracle. The story tells how very much a community stands to lose when buildings of historical importance are cast aside like yesterday’s dreams, and left to simply rot away to nothingness in Miami’s extreme weather.
At the same time, though, the story speaks just as clearly of how rich a potential harvest can be yielded—if the crop be measured as the growth of Hope in the Human Heart—when investments are made in honoring and remembering the great events of a previous era, anchored in relationship to a specific neighborhood or place. That harvest shines most brilliantly when the sweeter times have been forgotten altogether “on the streets,” even as story, and neither the battered neighborhood nor its surroundings are associated in any way with “greatness” of any kind, and never have been, as far as most people know.
Today, Brownsville stands out as a veritable garden of urban blight, called “the poorest neighborhood in Miami”– a truly horrifying distinction. Yet it was not always so. Back in 1961, when (paradoxically) racial segregation was the law of the land, it was a thriving, middle-class area with a sense of pride, and room for a dignified and respectable venue that might provide the kind of quality entertainment/ dining/ night “out on the town” experience denied the people a few miles away in Miami Beach, or elsewhere in the City, because of their race.
Wonderful pic, courtesy of Historymiami.org. Caption reads:
“City of Miami. ‘Beauty contestants at Hampton House, 1967 August 16.'” Notation is made as to original caption: “Negro Queens at Hampton House, Miami tour, August 16, 1967.”
At the same time, the once-legendary musical venues of Overtown, notably the Sir John Hotel with its famed Knight Beat Club, and the nearby Mary Elizabeth Hotel, once both so alive and filled with music that the sounds fell like light onto the sidewalk out front, and people were drawn to go and listen. Some called that particular place Overtown’s “Little Broadway,” and everybody knew just what they meant. As long as the music was playing, or even if there was a promise of music—everything was different. Life was just a little easier for a moment or two, and sometimes that’s all people really need, to get by. Just, something.
But now, even those most beloved venues had first lost their old shine, and then, before long, grown disturbingly quiet. Even when the music had poured forth onto the street, a few last times, many had thought to themselves, without speaking, “Why, where’s….?” The Hotels, their once-proud owners, the people… they were all showing the strain of a neighborhood’s ruination, all caught up in an ominous “ripple effect” that could not have been easy to ignore. They had all experienced the ongoing trauma of witnessing with their own eyes, several years running, the heedless, brutal, and purposeful destruction of the only world they had ever really known, or indeed- been legally permitted to call “their own.” Early one morning in 1960 the demolition crews had rolled quietly into place on the streets of Overtown, their grotesque and incomprehensible machinery in tow. They were there to destroy, and they meant business.
Miami, 1960: the creation of an unprecedented super-highway first called the North/ South Expressway calls for a ruinous swath of utter destruction several blocks wide, and all the way through near-center of the the mostly Black neighborhood of historic Overtown. The birth of the road today called I-95 signaled the death of a “whole” neighborhood, which is the only way real neighborhoods come into being, if they ever do, or know how to be. It has never fully recovered.
And so the demolition job began, reducing to dusted grey rubble every church, school, building, home, and green living thing standing on the blocks-wide swath running clear through the neighborhood’s very center and along the entirety of its length, as broad as the six-lane superhighway that was to run high above (now called I-95), and then some. Block after block after memory-filled block was ground quite literally into dust, leaving nothing recognizable. It was no fair match, for the Human Heart is so very easily broken, while the machinery of iron and steel seemed as if it could go on forever, biting and chewing, spitting out crushed stone, then digging back in for more.
ARETHA! In an earlier day.
And “forever” is exactly what it must have seemed, at least, because a full five years would pass before the dust would finally be allowed to last settle upon a landscape alien and transformed. By the end of that awful season two additional superhighways, I-395 and State Highway 836, would further bisect and dissect the area, each taking as it would for the imperative of its own construction, leaving that much less of whatever had once been. By 1965, fully half of Overtown’s population had been rudely displaced, and the spirit of a community shattered.
A glimpse of the extravagant and generally “over the top” showmanship that earned the Sir John its rightful place among the always “on the edge” entertainers of the day!
The need for a suitable refuge of hospitality on the “Black side of the color line” in the segregated world of 1961 was not lost upon Harry and Florence Markowitz, a White Jewish couple who owned a number of properties throughout the area, including that on which the 150-room Hampton House would soon come into being. Even the greatest and most celebrated of traveling Black musical performers were not permitted to stay in “White” Hotels, and thus typically returned to “colored town” (as then known) after having given their all to put on the shows that in some cases became the stuff of legend. And it wasn’t just musicians; business-people of all kinds were called upon to travel to the South Florida area for work, the destination called out to families on vacation, and so forth. It was not an easy time or world within which to be Black, if indeed there has ever been one; ideally travelers would find lodging that might delight rather than depress them.
Inspired by great passion, and yet motivated by (in their words) “good business sense,” the couple moved forward on a calculated “leap of faith,” betting that “If we build it, they will come.” They followed their mad inspiration to re-envision a new kind of hospitality for the area, centered on a “new kind of Hotel” to take shape incorporating the old “bones” of the 1954 “Booker Terrace” Hotel that stood on the premises at the time, slowly dying and losing money every day. And so it was that the “Hampton House” Hotel was born.
The Hampton House never aspired to fully match the “ultra-luxe” hotel experience available at the finer places on the Beach, nor could it have. Yet it borrowed from its finer contemporaries touches large and small that might help the guests temporarily forget that was the case! The remodeled facility took shape in the clean, simply elegant architectural style now affectionately celebrated as “MiMo” (or “Miami Modern”), boasting a defining sleekness of line, floors of cool terrazzo, graceful wrought-iron railings, and a number of other touches. The building was designed by young architect Robert Karl Frese, who would in time build a reputation as a leading specialist in the delightfully funky motels of the era, responsible for dozens of them around the southeast, a fair number done for such clients as Days Inn and Holiday Inn.
The Hampton House nightclub, in full swing! One neighborhood resident, who remembers, said in an interview: “When [the Hampton House] opened in 1961…it felt like we were onto a gold mine! It was quite a nice place, that we enjoyed and thought of as ‘ours’… We’d head out ‘dressed to the nines,’ and have ourselves a time. We just loved it.”
Inside, the hotel offered not only 150 clean and tastefully-appointed rooms, but a 24-hour restaurant serving quality food on pristine white linen tablecloths, a strictly-enforced dress code for the guests and a “flamboyant” maître d’ wearing gold lame, ready to properly greet and seat them, and a dimly-lit night club/ musical venue showcasing the best live jazz and R & B music happening in town. Since any number of celebrity musicians “adopted” the place as their own while on tour in the “Jim Crow” South, it was not entirely uncommon to be delightfully surprised by an impromptu performance never to be forgotten.
For years running the hotel operated at full occupancy, building a loyal and diverse clientele. Among the “regulars” was a 22 year-old, loud and motor-mouthed (but nevertheless lovable) boxer named Cassius Clay, soon to be famously known as Muhammad Ali, his friend and mentor Malcolm X, Motown Founder Berry Gordy, and a range of entertainers including (for example) Sammy Davis, Jr., Jackie Robinson, Sam Cooke and Nat King Cole, jazz greats Sarah Vaughan and brothers Nat and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley; chanteuse Nancy Wilson, and rhythm and blues singer LaVern Baker, later inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Also, importantly, the Hotel became “home base” for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his visits to Miami as called for by the growth and development of his movement. Local members of the Congress for Racial Equality (“CORE”), a key National Civil Rights group, assembled there weekly, and held strategy meetings with Dr. King when he was in town.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,meeting with associates. The FBI was watching.
But so was the World.
The highly esteemed and Internationally Acclaimed Dr. King for the moment allowed to be just “Martin,” feeling at home and among good friends, enjoying the refreshing and always-great feeling taking refuge from Florida’s distinctively smothering heat in the cool waters of a nice pool.
Videotapes exist of two interviews given by Dr. King filmed at the Hampton House in 1963 and ’64, and locals still speak in awe-struck tones of his stirring presentation of a “draft” version of that all-time epic in masterful oratory–“I Have a Dream” — finally delivered unto the world from Washington, DC on August 28, 1963.
The hundreds of thousands of people converged upon the National Mall at the Lincoln Memorial, on Aug. 28, 1963, all about to hear in Dr. King’s unmistakable voice and intonation, “I Have a Dream.” None who were there will ever forget. (Nor, for that matter, I suppose will anyone else.)
Ironically, it was the death of segregation that signaled the end of an era for the Hampton House. After years of decline, its doors finally closed for good in 1972. Thereafter the building slid steadily into a state of ruinous, very nearly irreversible, decay.
“Hampton House, 2001, before renovation” (Photo credit: Gurri Matute.)
“When architect Daphne Gurri first saw the Hampton House in 2006, it was in a state of total disrepair: The roof and second floor had collapsed; the floor was covered in mud; and a 35-foot ficus tree grew in the middle of the two-story structure.
‘The [trees] uprooted all the walkways, and their roots intertwined with the railings,’ says Gurri, principal and owner of Miami-based Gurri Matute. ‘It was like something from your imagination, like the Sleeping Beauty movie, when the castle is covered with vines.'”
Demolition orders were pending ominously, but despite the deeply dark skies, the final rains never came.
The property was condemned as a dangerous structure and fully deserved to be; orders were issued by the County demanding its demolition forthwith.
Artist’s conception of restored building, upon completion
Meanwhile, a small handful of stubborn and committed community members who remembered, and believed, notably Ms. Enid Pinkney, were able (against all odds!) to stay the pressing demolition, seek and find funding and support for restoration of the property as one of bona fide historic value, and (in short) once again set the Hampton House onto a road to the future filled with possibilities, instead of the final shutting of a last door upon a dead end. It is a remarkable story of a remarkable place.