AN ARCHELOGICAL EXPEDITION

THE JOURNEY FROM MUNCIPAL BUILDING TO MUSEUM

In 1937, the Great Depression continued to make its unwelcome presence felt. Millions had remained unemployed nationwide since the thundering Crash of 1929. The Works Progress Administration (WPA), created by President Franklin Roosevelt to assist thousands get back to work, had been running at full steam for four years, hiring people in fields ranging from construction to art. That November, responding to Coral Gables’ request for assistance, the WPA conditionally approved funding for the construction of a new police and fire station (formally known as the Municipal Building). The current police & fire station on Salzedo, was in woeful condition and sorely needed replacement. The proposed new Municipal Building was to be erected on the northwest corner of Salzedo and Aragon, just two blocks from its predecessor.

In April 1938, while negotiations for final funding continued, Coral Gables deeded the existing police & fire station to the WPA. In turn, the WPA would repurpose it to serve as the new home for the Miami Federal Galleries. On June 6, 1938, city officials received a telegram Florida’s U.S. Senator Claude Pepper relaying confirmation that Roosevelt had signed the final approval needed to commence construction. The WPA would contribute $69,990 and Coral Gables $19,551.

The architectural firm of Paist & Steward had optimistically already drawn up plans for the new complex, a masterful blend of Depression-Moderne and Mediterranean Revival styles. Phineas Paist, one of the first registered architects in Miami, was renowned for his many works, not only in Coral Gables but throughout Miami. As the supervising architect for the Coral Gables Corporation during the 1920s he had worked, often in tandem with Denman Fink and Walter de Garmo, on such prestigious projects as the Douglas Entrance, the Venetian Pool, Coral Gables City Hall and the San Sebastian Apartment Hotel.  Paist’s earliest renderings for the new Police & Fire Station were substantially the same as the finished product, including the renowned “Keystone Firemen” sculptures. Sadly, Paist did not live to see the Municipal Building, the last of his masterworks, completed. He had died in March 1937, leaving his partner Harold Steward to oversee the project to completion.

Construction had begun the week of March 30, 1938, using quarry keystone (commonly known as coral limestone or simply coral rock), which was brought up from Wembly Key. The building was basically divided into two sides. The Salzedo (or west) side housed the fire department while the Aragon (or east side) contained the police department, courtroom and jail cells. The two sections were joined via a hallway to the main vestibule.

The Fire Department, which was two storied, had bays for three fire trucks, the office of the fire chief, storage for hook & ladder equipment, a fire alarm room, mess hall and kitchen. A staircase and two slide poles connected to the second floor, which contained offices and living quarters for the firemen. Rising from the top of the Salzedo side was an imposing 50-foot tower (which had been shortened in height from the original plans). The tower was not only an aesthetically important component of the building. It also served a practical purpose, for it was where the fire hoses were hung out to dry after they had been used. On the façade facing Salzedo, positioned between the entrances into the fire truck bays, were the remarkable, oversized “Keystone Firemen”, sculptures that became one of the city’s most iconic images. The sculptress of these figures, and of the small reliefs surrounding them, was the enigmatic 22-year old Joan Keller. Her fascinating, and ultimately tragic, life merited a 2018 biography by these authors.

One passed through the fire bays into a hallway (now known as the Frank Lynn Gallery) which connected the fire department to the main lobby. This primary entrance to the building was dominated by an enormous front desk with a wood and marble façade and iron chandeliers.  Immediately to the right of the lobby entrance was a small courtroom, with a small curved alcove reserved for the raised judge’s bench. The alcove featured a mural by WPA artist Allison B. Curry, Jr., aptly entitled “Paths to Wrong and Righteousness.”  A door to the left of the bench led to the judge’s chambers. Also located behind the courtroom was the office of the police chief, other administrative offices and the jail cells.  There were four separate cells (segregated by race and sex) with windows secured by barred iron grates, so that some fresh air could come in while keeping those incarcerated securely inside. It should be noted that these cells were primarily meant for short-term detention, not for inmates on a long-term basis. One was more likely to see a drunk-and disorderly hauled in to sober up, than a hardcore felon. There was a small, securely fenced outdoor area, allowing the inmates to be outside for a limited time during the day.

A small free-standing building also constructed with quarry keystone and erected to the east of the police department was utilized by both departments for storage.

The complex was completed in less than a year, during the week of March 5, 1939. A small “house-warming” was held on March 17, 1939, which was the official opening date of the building. Mayor Paul McGarry symbolically accepted the keys and spoke of Coral Gables’ pride in the new building, a stark contrast to “that dark, dilapidated, ramshackle place that had preceded it.” The only cloud on the evening came when Roy Schroeder, the new WPA director for Florida, had to concede when asked by the reporters present, that as many as 8,000 WPA jobs in Florida were going to be eliminated by April 8th – less than a month away.

As Coral Gables continued to grow, it became clear the small courtroom was insufficient for the city. In 1954 a new much larger courtroom (which became the Museum’s Community Meeting Room) was erected on the far east side of the building. It abutted the small storage building, which as a result then became connected to the main building. This left only a small space between the 1939 walls and the entrance to the new courtroom. The 1939 walls were preserved and, and while normally hidden, can still be viewed. The building remained virtually unchanged after the 1954 addition. It remained the home of the police and fire departments until 1975, when they moved to a new Brutalist-style building further south on Salzedo. In turn, this 1975 building is presently being replaced by a fourth police and fire station, also located on Salzedo. Ironically, it is being constructed on the same site that had once housed the first police and fire station, and later the Miami Federal Galleries before it was demolished.

After the police and fire departments moved to their new building in 1975, the 1939 complex was used for city offices and a portion leased out to such entities as the Junior League.  In 2003 efforts, headed by Commissioner Wayne “Chip” Withers, were initiated to repurpose the former municipal building into a civic art museum.  That effort became a reality with the opening of the Coral Gables Museum on October 10, 2010.

Everything that could be saved, from 1938 fuse boxes, jail bars and grates, and much of the flooring was preserved. The original courtroom off the lobby presently houses the museum’s gift shop. The 1954 courtroom is now the Community Meeting Room, a popular venue for public and private events. The small open area between the jail cell exterior and the new courtroom was enclosed, adding space for employees and a partial kitchen. This area now connects to the original free-standing storage building, which still has the original 1939 wooden garage door.

The police offices and jail cells now comprise the one permanent exhibit in the Museum, “Creating the Dream,” which through photos, artifacts and other mediums tells the story of George Merrick and the birth and growth of his beloved “City Beautiful.” At the end of this exhibit space, doors lead to the premier Fewell Gallery, the Museum’s largest and most prestigious gallery, funded by and named after the Museum’s beloved benefactor, the late Robert Fewell. A short hallway connects the two galleries, and one can clearly see where the original 1939 building ended and the Fewell Gallery begins.

If one goes to the other wing off the lobby, they will first find Gallery 109 and Perrin Hall (also known as the Sister Cities Room), both created in the transition from Municipal Building to Museum. Adjacent to Gallery 109 is the former fire truck bay garage, now the prestigious Abraham Gallery, which has been kept as close as feasible to its original state. The original terrazzo floors retain the oil stains from the fire trucks, and the marble half-walls still show the diesel fuel fume stains from 80 years ago. The adjacent office of the fire chief is now home to the Museum’s Education Division. The second floor above the Abraham Gallery, which was primarily the bunk house for the firemen, is now the office of the city’s Historic Resources Department. A door from the Abraham Gallery leads one into the hallway (now the Frank Lynn Gallery), which connected the two wings to the main entrance and lobby. Off this hallway are the Museum’s administrative offices, the largest of which was the mess room for the firemen.

There are far too many more nooks and crannies to note here. Suffice it to say that the Museum is not only a place to visit for fine exhibits and events. Hidden walls and closets, mysterious nooks and crannies, a hidden staircase, even a long forgotten bathroom make the building itself a truly modern-day archeological expedition.