When William Farkas took the helm of Fort Lauderdale’s Downtown Development Authority just over 40 years ago, he was confronted with 16 acres of sand, dirt and weeds smack in the middle of the city. He and others made urban-design decisions involving that prime real estate. Those decisions made the heart of downtown what it is today – but the answers weren’t so obvious then.
Preceding Farkas’ arrival from Pittsburgh in 1975, where he had worked in urban planning, nearly every building from Broward Boulevard to the New River, and from Andrews Avenue to Third Avenue on the east side, had been demolished. A huge retail complex with a vast underground garage was planned. But it died with a U.S. recession.
OK, so what now, look for another retail suitor? Farkas and the DDA board took an entirely different tack.
“We made the decision to try and get every major public facility, non-profit or private office building to locate downtown,” Farkas says. “And we would leave retail to Las Olas.”
Simply put, they hoped to build a downtown with the city’s own institutions. That identity is so common elsewhere, but in 1975 it was still an embryo here.
By the time they were finished twisting arms and luring various boards and commissions, the city had a beating public heart. It took more than a decade, but in the end Fort Lauderdale city center had a brand new Main Library (1984) and a brand new NSU Art Museum (1986), both built by prestigious architectural firms. The Broward County governmental offices and Broward Community College (later expanded with Florida Atlantic University) came along, too. And as a bonus, in came a couple of high-rise office buildings, meaning better financial footing. One across from the museum later became the Blockbuster Building.
These new elements would mesh perfectly with public offices on the periphery: City Hall on Andrews, the Federal Court Building on Federal Highway, and the The Main Library is part of the Broward County Library, the ninth largest library system in Florida by square footage.
But for the new development to become possible, a key element had to be built first: a downtown parking garage. And that design mission fell to a local architect.
Farkas calls it “Donald Singer’s major contribution to the downtown.”
Donald Singer had come to Fort Lauderdale in 1964 and built his first studio as part of a four-unit Colee Hammock apartment building that is still regarded as one of the architectural highlights of the city. Its sleek modern lines and unique placement of a single oak tree in an enclosed courtyard for each unit is a marvel to behold.
He and his firm, Singer Architects, have gone on to create award-wining living and public spaces through South Florida, including the Boca Museum of Art.
But the garage was a challenge.
“We had about two blocks of space for parking,” Farkas says. Expectations were that Singer would design a pair of garages on either side of SE Second Street, which bisected the space. “But he decided to build a structure straddling the two blocks, leaving the traffic flow unimpeded underneath,” Farkas says. “No one thought of this.” Singer called it “lifting the building up.”
“At first I thought about a wonderful-looking garage that I had seen in New Haven, Connecticut,” says the retired architect, who now pursues another love, photography. “So I flew up and drove around in it and decided that I hated it. It was dark, gloomy and hard to maneuver inside.” But he spotted another garage on this trip which was the exact opposite – open, airy, roomy and designed so one could easily locate their vehicle. “That became my aim.”
He confesses that he was nervous about this project “because everybody loves to hate parking garages.” He needn’t have worried. His garage, while maybe not appreciated by every casual visitor, won city leaders’ accolades as well as prestigious architectural awards.
Unlike the big rectangular blocks in faceless car parks we so often see, Singer designed a sleek modernist structure with open walls and two floor-to-ceiling light wells. In addition, on the west end, he added a small mall for shops and dining, including a public patio on the northeast corner.
The patio wasn’t a part of the original plan, reveals Singer. At the time the design was being reviewed, future mayor Virginia Young was a city commissioner. She thought it would be a nice thing
if on Sundays, members of her Methodist church could walk straight over to the shops from the chapel door across the street.
Singer could see it for that and more, so the original squared-off design was redrawn to accommodate the corner of open space.
The City Park Municipal Garage was completed in 1978, and other pieces of the downtown were under way. But it was no easy feat, with the Broward governmental offices originally being planned for a suburban site and the art museum backers looking for a spot on the ocean.
“Where are the buildings?” people would ask him, he recalled in a 1990 news feature. Farkas could only say, “They’re coming, they’re coming.”
Farkas had a record of accomplishment in Pittsburgh that included stints as assistant and then executive director of the city’s urban renewal program. Later he became a division director for the Allegheny County Port Authority. He spent his last three years in Pittsburgh as executive director of a non-profit agency building housing in racially integrated neighborhoods. So he knew things took time.
Meanwhile, there were just two other hurdles, and these fell into the area of transportation design. Andrews Avenue at the time was one way and had a huge DO NOT ENTER sign. “Wow, that’s a nice welcome to your downtown,” Farkas says wryly. The other was the Andrews Avenue Bridge.
“Practically a rowboat would come by, and it would open,” Farkas says. “It seemed like the bridge was always up.”
City leaders agreed and in short order, Andrews was made a two-way street and got a new bridge. And finally, other parts began to pop. By 1989, Farkas and the DDA board were well on the way to realization of the initial vision.
It was then that Farkas was drafted to complete another long-time civic dream.
In the past, obstacles seemed to be insurmountable. But in this new era, could it be that Fort Lauderdale would have a major performing arts center before Miami or West Palm Beach?
Someone was needed to guide the public and private organizations and foundations to the finish line for the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Someone who could coordinate the support of various state, county and city agencies, as well as private foundations.
Then there were the boards of “the users” – the symphony, opera, ballet and theater presenters. Education funds and commitments were also a part of the stew.
“His background in regional diplomacy made Farkas the arts center board’s obvious choice,” wrote Sun-Sentinel cultural affairs writer Jack Zink in 1989. “There is also the fact that Farkas has been involved in the arts center proposal that begot the current project almost from the start. He conducted much of the staff work for the center in the early ’80s, when School Board Chairman Neil Sterling and a group led by Carl Mayhue were drawing up a proposal that would hopefully end decades of infighting among arts and business groups.”
This would be the city’s highest-profile public project yet, coming in at a cost of $52 million and counting. Highly regarded architect Ben Thompson of Cambridge, Mass., designed the majestic center for that special spot on Sailboat Bend, complete with an artificial hill. (Folks, you don’t really think there was a natural hill there, do you?)
The sloping mount was not for the sublime views looking down to the rippling water side, though that was achieved.
It was essential for elevators and lifts below the stages and also allowed a sunken terrace, a secondary entrance to the larger of the two theaters, and a ground floor of meeting and green rooms.
By taking the job of executive director, Farkas would also face the task of finding a final $8 million to finish the project on time.
On time for what? In early 1991, the Broward Center for the Performing Arts was slated to be the very first national touring stop of the Broadway sensation of the decade, Phantom of the Opera. It was not going to Chicago, not to Los Angeles, not to Miami, but to Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Farkas took the challenge, but as the time for Phantom approached, contractors had not completed the work and Phantom producers were antsy. It would be a race. They were insured by Lloyds of London, but if the show had to move elsewhere, there was a huge financial price to be paid, equivalent to a year’s gross.
Charlie Cinnamon, publicist for Phantom, recalls in the days running up, “We were all frantically working in trailers and tents. Then on opening night, we were all in tuxes and gowns and dressed to the nines when a terrible storm broke out, absolute sheets of pouring rain.”
One critic wrote, “It was a dark and stormy night, appropriate for Phantom of the Opera.” But the show did go on, and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.
An arts museum, a huge public library, a state-of-the-art performing arts center: The city was on a roll but not done yet. An expansion and new home for the then-tiny Museum of Discovery and Science became a reality in 1992, with funding coming from state and county grants, as well as major private donors like Wayne Huizenga and Rick Case. In future years, more and more features were added. An IMAX theater came courtesy of AutoNation.
And finally there was Riverwalk. City Manager Connie Hoffman and Mayor Bob Dressler made the landscaped walkway along the New River happen, according to Farkas. When completed, “at long last we had connected Las Olas with the rest of downtown and the Broward Center,” he says. Farkas retired as executive director of the Broward Center after ten years. Even he is surprised when he’s told it is now either the fourth or seventh most-visited performing arts venue in the entire nation, depending on which of two recent surveys you believe. The Museum of Discovery and Science is the most visited of any museum in the state.
That 16 acres of sand and dirt and weeds seems like a long time ago, but it’s only half a lifetime. Nobody asks “where are the buildings?” now.
“Not in my wildest dreams,” says Farkas, “would I have thought we’d have so many office towers and condominiums as we have downtown.”
Not in his wildest dreams. The question is, who’s dreaming now?
Building Our Venice
A city’s design, of course, follows the many avenues of natural features, of commerce, of private endowment, of public and civic foresight. All these transformed this sleepy vacation paradise in the subtropics.
Foresight abounded in 1913, when Fort Lauderdale’s first mayor, William H. Marshall, founded the Deep Water Harbor Company, with Frank Stranahan as treasurer. A popular local ditty at the time offered a twist on an old standard:
“Reuben, Reuben I been thinkin’ what a fine thing it will be when we get a deep‑water harbor in this river by the sea.”
In 1928, to much fanfare, Bay Mabel Harbor was dedicated as the area’s first deep-water port. Now at last they could ship more vegetables out!
Renamed Port Everglades, today it is one of the top three cruise ports in the world, one of the foremost container cargo ports in the U.S., and South Florida’s main port for oil, gas and jet fuel. The total annual value of economic activity is over $15 billion. (No mention of vegetables and fruit anymore.)
Other waterway decisions equally affected the city’s shape and future. The connecting of an intracoastal waterway from natural rivers. The draining of the Everglades for development. The creation of Venetian-style finger isles for expanded waterfront property.
Acts of civic foresight were many. Attorney George Washington English bequeathed to future generations the vast park and marine space with his name along Bayview Drive. He also engineered the purchase of the Bahia Mar Yacht Basin and beachfront across from it, then Coast Guard property. Boat show, anyone?
Developer Hugh Taylor Birch left behind 180 acres of indigenous green space in the barrier island and state park that bears his name. Across Sunrise Boulevard, his daughter-in-law Evelyn Fortune Lilly added to that precious green space by demanding that the Bonnet House and Gardens estate be left intact – or she would not bequeath it.
And no civic decision was as significant as one that is almost taken for granted: keeping developers off a long, continuous strip of public beach, from the old Yankee Clipper to just beyond Sunrise Boulevard.
Fort Lauderdale Architecture: A Style Guide
As the pieces of downtown came together during the 1980s and ’90s, there were no particular architectural design imperatives. Whether it was Edward Barnes’ modernist design of the arts museum or the so-called “Brutalist” design of the main library, architects brought their own conventions tailored to the mission at hand.
Our city is a rich repository of architectural styles. And even after devastating fires and hurricanes, we have some of our oldest buildings left, and restored for tours.
In Himmarshee, just along the tracks by the Tarpon Bend restaurant are prime examples of what is called Florida Vernacular Style.
Among them, city pioneer Philemon Bryan’s house (1905); the city’s first hotel, the New River Inn (1905); the King Cromarte House (1905), relocated here by the Junior League by barge from its original spot across the New River from the Stranahan House (1901). The latter, our city’s first house, is wonderfully preserved inside and out as a museum. Vernacular style often features porches built out with extended eaves for maximum shade. Many verandas are carried around the structure. Interior spaces allowed air to flow straight from the front to back doors.
East of the Stranahan House just off Las Olas Boulevard, is one of our earliest neighborhoods with a timeline of styles. On SE Second Street, beginning at 12th Avenue and heading east for four blocks are: Key West style homes from the 1920s (at 1223 and 1225), examples of Art Deco, Mid-Century Modern and Plantation styles.
It was in the late 1920s when two bold new architects came to South Florida to set a tone that is still borrowed from today, from waterfront mansions to chic townhouses to the latest subdivisions west of I-95.
Do these elements ring a bell? Barrel-tile roofs. Decorative ironwork. French doors. Colonnades, porticos. Pale pastels. Homes made of stone, tile and stucco (as opposed to Northeastern resort homes of wood or gray brick homes that seem straight out of New England).
Indeed, much of the greater metro area pays at least some homage to the Mediterranean Revival and Spanish Revival aesthetic of Addison Mizner and Francis Abreu.
Already a success nationally, Mizner moved to Palm Beach at age 46 for his health. To get an idea of the wealth of his clients, one of his early mansions had a 40-car garage. While that’s gone, familiar Mizner works include The Everglades Club, just off Worth Avenue, the Palm Beach “Kennedy Compound” and the Boca Raton Resort Hotel and Club.
After graduating from Cornell’s architectural school, Abreu joined his parents here in 1923 and got right to work designing a beach house for his grandfather. It’s now the Casablanca Café on A1A. Abreu put his own stamp on the Mediterranean Revival style, with Moorish influences and art-moderne motifs. He designed homes in Rio Vista, Idlewyld and also public spaces such as St. Anthony School, the Riverside Hotel and the Westside Firehouse in Sailboat Bend.
By the late 1950s, a new breed of architects was in town. No barrel tiles, no stucco, no pastels, no turrets or colonnades for them.
They brought in linear, gleaming white surfaces and white-shingled roofs with their Modernist and so-called Mid-Century Modern style. Charles McKirahan, Dan Duckham and Donald Singer were among them.
They could also bring whimsy. On the northwest corner of Oakland Park Boulevard and Federal Highway is the strange, cylindrical, once-futuresque Kennan Building designed by Duckham. Much of his other work, nearly 500 buildings and homes in South Florida from 1959 to 2001, followed more closely the Mid-Century Modern structures.
Charles McKirahan’s firm had at its height 100 architects, including his wife, who did the final renderings. His gleaming white buildings are well-represented in Coral Ridge, including the Yacht Club, the Coral Ridge Country Club, the Coral Ridge Towers, and span as far south as the exclusive Bay Harbor development near Bal Harbor. He took off his modernist hat for the authentically Polynesian design of the Mai-Kai restaurant.
In addition to Singer’s downtown garage and first studio (see main story), mention should also be made of the Fire Prevention Bureau on Lake Melba, where half of the building extends mysteriously in angled, box-like units over the water. Done for the down-to-earth purpose of allowing for more parking on limited land space, it has a most otherworldly appearance. We’re a long way from barrel tiles, Mabel.
The Brutalist style is not as tough as it sounds. It gets its name from the French words for raw concrete, béton brut. It primarily refers to governmental and institutional works, typically massive in character with a predominance of exposed concrete, as in the Main Library, designed by architects Robert Gatje and Jordan Miller.
Obviously lots of structures get built and a bevy of architects find their own variations of what has come before, like being “greener” than the other guy. But generally speaking, we await the next big thing.