Johnny Carson loved Fort Lauderdale.
In fact, the story goes that when he found out he was taking over for Jack Paar as host of The Tonight Show, he, Ed McMahon and a handful of other show staffers came here and holed up on the beach planning what they were going to do – then relaxing with dinner and a few rum drinks at a perennial Carson favorite, the Mai-Kai. McMahon’s famous “Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” was likely invented on Galt Ocean Mile.
In those days, Carson was the definition of a kind of urbane, modern cool – a man who knew how to wear a suit and land a punchline. He offered a certain sort of hip newness.
It was something he had in common with his newfound beach town. Some of his favorite stops – the Mai-Kai, the Ocean Manor Hotel, Coral Ridge Country Club – possessed an architectural version of that modern cool. Fort Lauderdale was growing from a dot on the map to a nationally known destination – and with new hotels, homes, shops and office buildings, Midcentury Modern was the style of the day.
Midcentury Modern architecture can be found everywhere in the United States. Look for it in everything from imposing buildings on the Yale campus to the soaring jet-age whimsy of Seattle’s Space Needle to the place that most singularly personifies the style, Palm Springs.
It was a style fueled by Modernists such as Eero Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Walter Gropius leaving Europe for America and its postwar era of seemingly limitless growth. It was a style meant for everybody that utilized inexpensive building materials and offered up small homes in rampantly developing suburbs as much as grand buildings in downtowns. And its peak coincided with one of the most booming of the Fort Lauderdale building booms.
“We were built on this history of Midcentury Modern,” says Abby Laughlin, one of the people behind BroCoMo Midcentury Modern Architecture in Broward County, a Facebook page whose moderators have also organized architectural tours of the city. She also redevelops buildings and is currently working on several along NE 13th Street.
“We are the ultimate post-World War II tourist destination that was brought about by the automobile,” she says. “We were also the recipient of architects looking for a playground where they could express new ideas without the constraints of the old ideals that architecture held as a standard. We were the experimental ground for a lot of architects that had been influenced by the international style.
“They wanted to build in a place where they weren’t constrained. Certainly, Florida is not a place that is known for its restraint or constraint when it comes to buildings.”
Midcentury Modern is perhaps Fort Lauderdale’s most widespread and enduring architectural and aesthetic heritage. Many architects came here to work although three – Dan Duckham, Charles McKirahan and Donald Singer – had the most sustained presence in Fort Lauderdale and are most closely associated with the style here. The work they created is not rare and obviously historic like, say, the early Fort Lauderdale settler homes made of Dade pine. However that’s not to say the city hasn’t lost some of its best examples of the style, particularly in areas like the beach, where new hotel tower development has massively altered the landscape.
Counted among Fort Lauderdale’s Midcentury Modern treasures are some of the city’s most well-known landmarks. Pier Sixty-Six is Midcentury Modern, as is the KenAnn Building, the circular structure at the northwest corner of Federal Highway and Oakland Park Boulevard. Just up the road from the KenAnn, the Midcentury Modern subgenre called “Tiki Modernism” – ubiquitous in Polynesian-themed bars across American cities in the postwar years – has one of its last standing examples in the Mai-Kai.
But Midcentury Modernism wasn’t just for big landmarks. The style lives on in smaller retail buildings and homes across the city. In the postwar years, developers built houses as fast as newly suburban Northerners could buy them. You can see Midcentury Modern’s influence in small North Beach Village condos, multi-million-dollar Coral Ridge houses and rediscovered two-bedroom homes in South Middle River. In Fort Lauderdale, you can see it everywhere.
“There’s a lot of them,” Laughlin says. “They were trying to build something that was organic in nature that could live in harmony with the environment.”
In Florida, that meant details like orienting buildings towards ocean breezes, intricately designed breezeblocks that let in that breeze while keeping out the sun, eyebrow windows, overhangs and whatever else might make use of shadow and light in the subtropical heat.
“It was also cheap,” she says. “The building materials were inexpensive.”
Midcentury Modern was optimistic architecture for an optimistic age. And Florida – young, growing and home to NASA and postcard-ready beaches – was ready to have fun.
“Florida was pushing away from the weight of authority and the weight of old-school thinking; (architects here) wanted to do things everybody liked more than things a few elites liked,” Sam Lubell says. An architecture writer, his latest book with photographer Darren Bradley is Mid-Century Modern Architecture Travel Guide: East Coast USA. The book features a number of Fort Lauderdale buildings.
Midcentury Modernism spawned many subcategories; a flip through Lubell’s book reveals that on the U.S. East Coast alone, it took all kinds of forms. In much of the Northeast, for example, it’s serious business. Boston’s John Hancock Tower or New York’s One Chase Manhattan Plaza are not buildings to be trifled with. Florida’s Midcentury Modern – also called Tropical Modern or Miami Modern – tended more towards the fun.
Lubell cites Morris Lapidus, whose most famous work can be found around Miami-Dade, including the Fontainebleau Miami Beach. Today the architect, who died in 2001, is remembered as a master. At the time, one critic pronounced his work to be for the “great mass of people who don’t know the difference between architecture and Coney Island.”
Lubell cautions against conflating fun and different with something that lacks substance or is less worthy of preservation.
“Tastes change and sometimes something that’s considered ridiculous is actually not ridiculous,” he says. “I like all architecture if it’s good.”
“This really is our signature architecture.”
Steve Glassman doesn’t have to go far to find examples of Midcentury Modern buildings. In fact, he doesn’t even have to leave his condo by the beach.
“I look out to my east and I see the Sea Tower,” he says. “I look out to the west and I can see the Alagon.”
It’s the sort of view he wants to preserve for future generations.
“This really is our signature architecture,” he says. “There really are so many great buildings in our city.”
The question is, how do you best do that?
Today Glassman sits on the Fort Lauderdale City Commission. His District 2 includes areas such as North Beach Village, the neighborhood of smaller hotels, apartments and condos just south of Sunrise Boulevard between the beach and the Intracoastal that offers one of the most intact collections of beachside Midcentury Modern in the city. The district also includes areas around the rapidly developing NE 13th Street corridor – neighborhoods like South Middle River and Poinsettia Heights that are filled with many of the smaller residential homes done in the style.
Glassman thinks about preservation. Before he was on the council, he served as president of the Broward Trust for Historic Preservation; he’s also served on the Beach Redevelopment Advisory Board and the Planning and Zoning Board.
He cautions against becoming too complacent about preserving Midcentury Modern buildings just because they’re more ubiquitous in Fort Lauderdale than, say, those turn-of-the-century Dade pine houses. But he admits that right now, there’s still plenty of Midcentury Modern to go around. To keep it that way, he wants to make sure local people know how unique it is.
“We stack up pretty well when it comes to the number of buildings,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong; we’ve lost a lot, particularly on the beach. But we’ve still got a lot of stock left. That’s why it never is a waste to educate people on what we’ve got there.
“As a city, we’re probably best starting with our public structures. You run into less of a controversial mode with historic preservation. So we may start with the War Memorial Auditoriums of the world, the Parker Playhouses of the world. You start with getting those identified and protected.”
Glassman’s occasionally heard talk of demolishing War Memorial, the auditorium that, when it opened in 1950, was the city’s first large public indoor space. More recently, there’s been talk of repurposing it into something like a small ice arena. Something like that second plan, he believes, is smart – good conservation can change a building’s use while still preserving that which makes it worthwhile.
“My frustration is that folks are used to development and redevelopment, and that’s fine. But they don’t understand that redevelopment and historical preservation are not mutually exclusive.”
Likewise, he says there can be a strong economic case for preservation.
“We have some amazing Midcentury Modern structures on the beach,” Glassman says. “A lot of people, especially European tourists, don’t want to go into the big-box chain hotels.”
When Fort Lauderdale needed to reinvent itself as a tourist destination after the demise of spring break, those little hotels helped do that – and they attracted a clientele that largely still loves them today.
“Those were the places that actually saved our tourism during the downturn, especially with LGBT tourists,” he says.
Abby Laughlin agrees with the idea that redeveloping, repurposing and finding viable business models for existing buildings is a smart way to go about things. She worries when the public sector gets involved without paying for things.
“Preservation is so important for the public,” she says. “If it’s a public program, the public really needs to pay for it, not the private homeowner.”
Laughlin is now redeveloping a portfolio of buildings on NE 13th Street, a stretch where in recent years the city has made improvements such as bicycle lanes, widened sidewalks and a large, sculpture-accented roundabout. Smaller Midcentury Modern buildings have got new life as businesses like popular bar Milk Money. Laughlin has plans for more like that in her buildings.
“What we need for preservation to be successful is, we need good stewards,” she says. “If you try to force stewardship on somebody, that’s where things go awry. I consider myself a steward. I see these old buildings, I feel they have a soul, I see they need work and I appreciate that. But it’s not a sustainable model for most people.”
Looking around Fort Lauderdale, it’s not hard to make the case that some of the city’s best Midcentury Modern has been preserved because it’s remained viable as commercial property. Laughlin sees this on the tours run by the BroCoMo Facebook group.
“When we do a tour and we go by Sea Tower, Birch Tower, the KenAnn Building, the Coral Ridge Yacht Club, Pier Sixty-Six, some of them are preserved. None of them are really in danger. Nobody’s going to tear down Sea Tower; nobody’s going to tear down Pier Sixty-Six.”
And in Fort Lauderdale, you don’t even need to get into that level of landmark building to find examples of Midcentury Modern that are still thriving as going concerns in 2019. In his travel guide, Sam Lubell lists everything from Pier Sixty-Six, the Mai-Kai and the KenAnn building to the Federal Highway Commercial District.
It’s OK if your response to that last one is “The what?”
The district in question sits in the general vicinity of Oakland Park Boulevard, and Lubell uses two buildings to illustrate it – the buildings that house Miami Carpet and Ferguson Bath, Kitchen and Lighting Gallery. Great architecture doesn’t always come in the form of a cathedral.
In his book, Lubell writes that “for kitschy fun, little beats Fort Lauderdale’s commercial strip along Federal Highway … Up and down the interstate’s six-lane stretch pop up quirky strip malls and standalone stores, their frontages emblazoned with ‘look at me’ forms and signage, often shaping or merging with facades.”
It’s a heavily traveled main street with a collection of buildings that might not lend themselves to reflection on architecture and history – hey, get a load of the historic significance on that mattress shop. But they’re ours and actually, they’re unique.
“You’ve got everything,” Lubell says. “But if you’re not looking, you just take it for granted.”