A renovation project is never easy. Approaching any kind of art work that needs to be enhanced requires analysis, study, humility and, above all, respect. But in addition, when it comes to buildings, the process gets more complicated because the renovation and maintaining of the original architectural elements has to be combined with the adherence to new regulations, the implementing of new facilities or the updating of existing ones, fulfilling users’ new comfort requirements, improving energy efficiency, updating security measures and improving accessibility.
There are cities that are particularly aware of the value and potential of their historical heritage. Miami Beach is one of them. Whilst the effort that the city of Miami has gone to safeguard and enhance the Art Deco Historic District is noteworthy, it is also true that for the developers and architects this area represents the need to deal with strict requirements and demands that make their work more difficult, and that sometimes even limit the economic viability of operations. Managing to bring together the interests of public and private agents is a challenge. But when this is achieved, success is guaranteed. Today, 80 years after development began on the Art Deco Historic District, this is the city’s main cultural asset, and the building that we’re going to analyse is an example of this public-private collaboration.
Albert Anis; a Visionary Architect
The Waldorf Towers Hotel is a building designed by the architect Albert Anis in the year 1937. Born in Chicago in 1899, Anis was part of the Armour Institute of Technology in Chicago and he worked there for a while before moving to Miami.
In 1926 a terrible hurricane had obliterated the beach, and the Great Depression began in 1929. In the 30’s, Miami boomed as a tourism destination, and a powerful local tourism industry emerged. It was a time period full of development and opportunities, in which many young architects and entrepreneurs found the perfect breeding ground in which to develop. They all had the vision of using an artistic style that would set them apart and would develop into a unique architectural style.
There is no doubt that this is one of Albert Anis’ greatest works. It encompasses all of his characteristic architectural traits, as well as some particularly original and unique features.
The 44 room building stands on the corner between Ocean Drive and 9th Street, on a rectangular plot that’s 130 feet long and 50 feet wide. It has three floors which we will call the first floor (or ground floor according to the European system), second floor and third floor, as well as a semi-basement.
The lighthouse-like tower
The central part of the main façade on Ocean Drive stands out for its chequerboard style with coloured groves that are repeated on the corner and on the first floor columns. Anis curved the main façade so that it continued on from that on 9th street, thus showing that one façade is just as important as the other. This continuity is emphasised with the powerful ledges that, starting from the main façade, go all across the façade on 9th Street.
Furthermore, he broke the corner by putting windows on it and, not happy with that, he crowned it with an original, lighthouse-like tower with transparent glass blocks on its lower part. The symmetrical nature of the façade was broken, and thanks to its tower, the building became a landmark along the waterfront. This feature, of the corner being topped by a tower, would be used by Anis in later buildings, although they were rectangular and less striking.
The main entrance is raised two feet above street level. He thus created a space that, limited by a small balustrade, created privacy whilst maintaining the feeling of being connected to the street. This is in front of a pillar-free terrace, thanks to a brilliant structural solution with a powerful reinforced concrete beam that supports the upper floors, as well as the soaring concrete ledge that covers almost all the pavement. This is a solution that was successfully trialled for the first time in this building. This way, only two circular pillars can be seen on the ends, with grooves that are reminiscent of Greek columns and that leave the view from the terrace completely clear.
Main entrance to the hotel and the outdoor terrace
Anis also intelligently used floor levels to create more powerful, interesting spaces. Without losing any room space, he was able to solve the problem that the area’s possible floods could cause due to the shallowness of the water table in the area. This play on the heights can be seen perfectly in the sketch below which shall then be explained.
Diagram of the section of the hotel in which the intelligent floor distribution can be seen. Author’s sketch.
The lobby, just like the outside terrace, is two feet above the pavement, and to access the first floor rooms another four feet must be climbed from reception. The second floor takes up the entire footprint of the building. By doing this, without compromising on room space, the lobby has a height of a floor and a half. Only a small part of the basement is lost, but the fact that the first floor has been risen means that it is actually a semi-basement with street level access, natural light and it is above the water table, thus preventing it from being flooded.
Not only does the lobby have high ceilings, but thanks to the 10 enormous windows that were able to hold the weight of the floors above it, it is also bright. The wonderful terrazzo floor, full of geometric designs, runs from the outside, accentuating the continuity between the inside and the outside terrace.
The hotel’s reception with its final distribution, with large windows and completely restored floor, as well as the decorative chimney.
The structure is mixed. The façades are made from pre-manufactured blocks combined with some reinforced concrete elements and an interior wooden balloon frame structure. The internal walls are also structural, both helping to support the floor slabs and to hold up the exterior walls.
Interior wooden balloon frame structure during the renovation works.
The complete structure of the semi-basement and the shell of the first floor are also made from concrete. Thus, a type of base was created, from which three floors of rooms could be constructed with a wooden structure. The logic behind this is to keep the wooden elements far from the water table and the areas that are liable to flooding. The changes in the water table levels in Miami Beach are usual due to the tide and hurricanes, plus they are intensifying due to climate change.
Ramón Fernández López, Arquitecto.
In Memoriam de Pepe Tena