Making Miami Modern

The Giller Building, located at 975 West 41st Street in Miami Beach, was officially added to the National Register of Historic Places on March 29, 2018. Built in 1957, the structure is named for its architect and first occupant, Norman Myer Giller, who made the building into a focal point for the architectural style he helped to make popular, Miami Modern.

Giller Building, located at 975 W 41st Street in Miami Beach. Photo courtesy of Max Imberman (2017).

Giller Building, located at 975 W 41st Street in Miami Beach. Photo courtesy of Max Imberman (2017).

Norman Giller was born in 1918 in Jacksonville but spent much of his childhood in Miami Beach and Washington, DC. He worked for a Washington architect right out of high school before taking a position with the U.S. Navy in Key West. With World War II on the horizon, Giller was transferred to the Army Corps of Engineers’ offices in Jacksonville to help design buildings for military bases in Florida and Georgia. Up to this point, his training had come on the job rather than from school, but Army rules required him to seek an architecture degree. Giller complied and graduated from the University of Florida in 1945.

Norman Giller (left) and Al Sutton (right) in Miami Beach (1944).

Norman Giller (left) and Al Sutton (right) in Miami Beach (1944).

After the war, Giller opened up his own architectural firm in Miami Beach. Business was booming–the war had forced most construction projects to the back burner, but once peace was restored the demand for new buildings skyrocketed. Even as a young architect just starting out on his own, Giller quickly landed more than a hundred clients. “The phone would ring,” he later recalled. “I’ve got a piece of property and I want to build an apartment building, I want to build a house, or I want to build some stores.” In those busy early days, Giller remembered having seven associates working on a single table to draw up plans.

Record of Registered Architects maintained by the Secretary of State (Series S1195). Norman Giller held certificate #1515. State Archives of Florida.

Record of Registered Architects maintained by the Secretary of State (Series S1195). Norman Giller held certificate #1515. State Archives of Florida.

From the beginning of his career, Giller was an innovator, even when it came to the technical details of design. Once during the war, the Army assigned him to build housing for a base in South Florida, and while the plans called for heating units, there was no plan for air-conditioning. Giller read up on a central heat and air-conditioning system that would do both jobs for one cost and convinced the military to use it. He was also one of the first architects to use PVC plumbing rather than traditional metal pipes, which tended to corrode and fail quicker when exposed to salt air and coastal soils.

Giller designed everything from nightclubs to banks to synagogues, but he is best remembered for his work on the hotels and motels that helped make Miami Beach a world-class tourist destination in the postwar era. He later noted that what architectural historians now call “Miami Modern” didn’t seem like anything special at the time. “Everybody was just designing what we called contemporary architecture of the time,” he said. “When you’re doing that, you’re not saying, ‘Gee, I want to design a [Miami Modern] building or an Art Deco building.'”

The Carillon Hotel in Miami Beach, designed by Norman M. Giller (circa 1960).

The Carillon Hotel in Miami Beach, designed by Norman M. Giller and built in 1955 (photo circa 1960).

Miami Modern had its own look and feel, however. It reflected the optimism of post-World War II America, combined with an abiding faith in progress and reverence for Miami’s tropical qualities. Architects designing in this style used vivid colors, curved lines, glass walls, glass tile, colorful Formica surfaces and floating staircases to transport the visitor into the hopeful future many Americans felt was already coming their way. Giller brought this style to bear on large hotels such as The Carillon, as well as many smaller establishments of “motel row,” including the Thunderbird and Ocean Palm motels in Miami Beach. Most of these retained the traditional two-story floor plan–the four-story Thunderbird being a notable exception–but Giller took steps to incorporate some of the features that made his larger projects more exciting and comfortable. He eliminated interior hallways, instead having guests reach their rooms using covered walkways with the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing in the background. Brilliantly colored and whimsically shaped facades attracted the tourist’s attention from the highway, while the same shapes and colors repeated throughout the rooms and common areas.

View of the Thunderbird Resort Motel on Miami Beach, designed by Norman Giller. This promotional brochure includes images from throughout the building, illustrating Giller's innovative architectural techniques (State Library Ephemera Collection).

View of the Thunderbird Resort Motel on Miami Beach, designed by Norman Giller. This promotional brochure includes images from throughout the building, illustrating Giller’s innovative architectural techniques. Click or tap the image to enlarge it (State Library Ephemera Collection).

The Giller Building is an adaptation of this style for an office environment. Giller built the original four-story structure in 1957 to house his growing architectural firm and a few additional tenants. The construction of the nearby Julia Tuttle Causeway in 1961 inspired Giller to expand the building with a six-story addition for more offices and tenants. The entire edifice is a celebration of the Miami Modern style that Giller helped promote, including floating staircases, glass tile mosaics on the exterior, and plenty of plate glass doors and windows.

Floating staircase inside the Giller Building (2017).

Floating staircase inside the Giller Building. Photo courtesy of Max Imberman (2017).

Norman Myer Giller passed away in 2008, but monuments to his architectural contributions can still be found across Florida and throughout the Western Hemisphere. He designed motels in Key West, Jacksonville, Georgia, New Jersey, and even Canada, government buildings at Kennedy Space Center, and public facilities throughout Latin America. He was heavily involved in local civic affairs, chaired the South Florida chapter of the American Institute of Architects and received a number of awards and other honors for his work.

Is there a building in your Florida town that qualifies for listing on the National Register of Historic Places? Visit the Division of Historical Resources’ website to find out more about submitting a nomination!

A Merritt Island Beach Palace

It was 1964. More and more of Brevard County’s Merritt Island was being developed by NASA to build the nation’s first “moonport.” On the edge of all this futuristic construction, however, stood the fading remains of a majestic old house. Its octagonal rotundas gave it a rather unique appearance for Florida, and locals even called it a castle. Dummitt Castle, to be exact.

Dummitt Castle after it was relocated to Parrish Park near Titusville in Brevard County (circa 1965).

Dummitt Castle after it was relocated to Parrish Park near Titusville in Brevard County (circa 1965).

This structure was a real anachronism in a place dedicated to launching Florida and the United States into the Space Age. The damage done by years of neglect and vandalism didn’t help. Local historians and preservationists hoped, however, that somehow the old house could be saved.

As it turned out, convincing the right people of Dummitt Castle’s historic value was the easy part. The house and its surroundings were part of a story that dates back to the Spanish colonial era. In 1807 or so, Colonel Thomas Dummitt (originally spelled Dummett) of the British Marines sailed past Merritt Island while on his way to St. Augustine. According to local legend, Colonel Dummitt and his son smelled wild orange blossoms as they passed through. They were curious, but they had already had big plans to develop a plantation farther north.

In 1825, Dummett purchased the plantations of John Bunch and John Addison, the former of which included a sugar mill. These plantations had been built on land near the Halifax River, which the Spanish granted to Bunch and Addison prior to the United States’ acquisition of Florida in 1821.

A map from the Spanish Land Grant of John Bunch. This land later passed into the possession of Thomas Dummett (Dummitt).

A map from the Spanish Land Grant of John Bunch. This land later passed into the possession of Thomas Dummett (Dummitt).

When Colonel Dummett’s son Douglas came of age, his interests turned to citrus. He acquired a significant amount of land through the Florida Armed Occupation Act of 1842, owing to his military service during the Second Seminole War.  He established an orange grove on North Merritt Island, budding trees from wild sour-orange trees from St. Augustine and sweet-orange trees from New Smyrna. The resulting hybrid was particularly hardy as it managed to withstand even the Great Freeze of 1894-95. The Dummitt, Indian River, and Enterprise seedless varieties of oranges are descended from this lineage.

Douglas Dummett eventually grew old and passed away, but his orange grove continued to impress visitors and provide stock for new citrus ventures. In 1881, the property was sold to an Italian duke, Eicole Tamajo, Duke of Castlellucia. The duke and his wife decided to upgrade the living quarters of the grove, and so they built what was later known as Dummitt Castle. A penciled notation under one of the staircases explained that the architect was J.J. Conwar of New York, and that the structure was completed on December 15, 1881. Building materials for the house came in part from timbers off a shipwrecked vessel that met its demise off Daytona Beach.

The United States government acquired the property some years after the duke and duchess had died, and it eventually became part of the massive 90,000-acre plot reserved for the nation’s space program at Cape Canaveral. Given the historical significance of the old house and the surrounding orange grove, locals felt something ought to be done to preserve this unique relic of Brevard County’s past. The house, alternately called either “Dummitt Castle” or the “Duke’s Castle,” was moved in 1964 to nearby Parrish Park, just east of Titusville, with help from the Brevard County Historical Society.

Visitors take in Dummitt Castle at its new location in Parrish Park near Titusville in Brevard County (1967).

Visitors take in Dummitt Castle at its new location in Parrish Park near Titusville in Brevard County (1967).

Unfortunately, Dummitt Castle burned in 1967 before it could be turned into a museum. Brevard County is home, however, to a number of other excellent historic sites and museums. Visit the Brevard County Historical Commission’s Historic Landmarks page to learn more.

And on Florida Memory, you can always find images of historic sites in Brevard County and across the state by searching the Florida Photographic Collection. You might also be interested in learning more about the Spanish Land Grants, one of which eventually passed into the Dummett family’s possession.

 

All in Good Time

It’s smart to plan for the future, but it’s also possible to take that mantra to extremes. Calvin Phillips, an  architect who lived in Tallahassee in the early 20th century, is a good example. You see, in the months leading up to his death in November 1919, Phillips spent most of his time building his own mausoleum.

Calvin Phillips' mausoleum in Oakland Cemetery in Tallahassee (1960).

Calvin Phillips’ mausoleum in Oakland Cemetery in Tallahassee (1960).

This might seem a bit out of the ordinary, but Calvin Phillips was no ordinary man. A few bits of evidence suggested to his contemporaries that he had done great things in his lifetime. His purpose for coming to Tallahassee and the details of his earlier life, however, are mostly shrouded in mystery even today.

Census records indicate that Calvin C. Phillips was born around 1834 in Massachusetts. He trained as an architect and lived in New York for some portion of his adult life. His architectural work was honored by medals from the Pennsylvania State Agriculture Society and the “Exposition Universelle” of 1889, which were brought to Florida by his daughter after his death.

In 1907, for unknown reasons, Calvin Phillips moved to Tallahassee. He had been married, and had at least one living daughter, but no family members joined him in his new home. In fact, he lived mostly as a hermit, seeing very few people and hardly ever going out into public. He built a home at 815 South Macomb Street, and erected a large clock tower at one end of the building. Tallahasseeans who met Phillips recalled that the architect was almost obsessed with the concept of time, which would explain the rather imposing structure.

Home of Calvin Phillips at 815 S. Macomb Street in Tallahassee, including the clock tower (circa 1960s).

Home of Calvin Phillips at 815 S. Macomb Street in Tallahassee, including the clock tower (circa 1960s).

 

Close-up of the clock tower attached to Calvin Phillips' home in Tallahassee (1967).

Close-up of the clock tower attached to Calvin Phillips’ home in Tallahassee (1967).

Apparently, he was equally obsessed with the end of his own time. In 1919, Calvin Phillips began constructing a mausoleum in what is now Oakland Cemetery in Tallahassee. He was over eighty years old by this point, and according to eyewitnesses he would spend his frequent breaks sitting inside the mausoleum that would one day serve as his own tomb. One contemporary said Phillips described this practice as his way of “getting used to his new home.”

Calvin Phillips’ sense of time proved mysterious right up to the end. He finished the mausoleum in November 1919, just days before he passed away. According to his wishes, he was buried in a cherry-wood coffin he himself constructed, and placed in the tomb he had spent so many of his final days creating.

Remains of Calvin Phillips' home in Tallahassee (circa 1974).

Remains of Calvin Phillips’ home in Tallahassee (circa 1974).

Calvin Phillips’ property eventually passed into the possession of Mr. and Mrs. Henry M. Blaine, who in turn gave the house and clock tower to the Florida Heritage Foundation. Efforts to restore the unusual landmark proved prohibitively expensive, and it was torn down in the 1980s. Phillips’ mausoleum still stands in Oakland Cemetery, a lasting monument to his unique contribution to Tallahassee’s architectural history.

Articles from the Tallahassee Democrat were instrumental in reconstructing this story. Did you know  the State Library of Florida has microfilm editions of many Florida newspapers going as far back as before the Civil War? Search the State Library’s online catalog or contact the Reference Desk for details.

The Thomas Guest House of Cedar Key

The small fishing village of Cedar Key on the Gulf Coast is in many ways an icon of Old Florida charm. Wood frame houses line the sandy streets of downtown, and the restaurants serve up fresh Florida seafood, much of which was brought in from right offshore. Golf carts are a favored mode of transportation, and why not? There’s not even enough automobile traffic on the island to require the use of a single traffic signal.

An aerial view of the Dock Street loop in Cedar Key. Photo circa 1970s.

An aerial view of the Dock Street loop in Cedar Key. Photo circa 1970s.

Few landmarks in Cedar Key capture the essence of the place so well as the Thomas Guest House, a small wooden cottage built on pilings over the shallow Gulf waters right off 1st Street. Originally built in 1959 by the Thomases of Gainesville, the house was for many years an ideal escape from the press of everyday business for the family and their friends. A small boardwalk was all that connected the house with the mainland. Out front, visitors were treated to a panoramic view of the sparkling Gulf and the other islands of the Cedar Key archipelago.

The Thomas Guest House sometime prior to Hurricane Elena in 1985 - likely taken in the 1970s.

The Thomas Guest House (December 1977).

The Thomas Guest House at sunset. Photo circa 1970s.

The Thomas Guest House at sunset. Photo circa 1970s.

Read more »