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Meet Opa-Locka, Florida: An Unlikely Moorish Revival Wonderland

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In a state that's home to one of the world's most successful theme parks, Disney World, there's quite a history of well-meaning, poorly executed fantasylands in Florida. Starting with an epic land rush in the '20s, Florida's recent real estate history has been filled with cons, epic but failed attempts at planned communities, and plenty of eclectic buildings. Perhaps one of the most idiosyncratic examples, Opa-Locka, a city on the edge of Miami-Dade County, seems as storybook as the famous work of literature it was inspired by, 1001 Arabian Nights. Invented whole cloth the '20s, it boasts a
downtown "skyline" dotted with minarets, domes and other symbols of Moorish Revival architecture. And while the city has been fighting to recover from urban decline and high crime rates for decades, many are betting that its anomalous architecture may be the key to its future success.

Formerly a sparsely settled area filled with palmetto trees, Opa-Locka was transformed due to the vision of one wealthy man, Glenn Curtiss, an industrial designer and aviation pioneer. A contemporary of icons such as Amelia Earhart and the Wright Brothers, he founded the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company in 1910, a company so successful at manufacturing and selling vehicles such as the Jenny Biplane that he was able to retire a few years after World War I with more than $35 million to his name. Still in his early 40s, Curtiss had plenty of ambitious plans, and turned part of his focus towards real estate and the Florida land boom.

With partner James H. Bright, Curtiss picked up 220,000 acres in Dade County and began creating what would become a series of distinct communities near Miami: Hialeh, with buildings modeled after Spanish homes, and the second, fashioned after the pueblos found in western American deserts. His predilection for themed developments would reach its apex in 1926, when he began building in an area originally known as Opatishawackalocka, a Sminole Indian word that means "wood hammock in a swamp."

Above: An Arabian Nights-themed event in Opa-Locka in 1930. Below, Hurt Building in 1930. HistoryMiami Museum, Claude Matlack Collection.

Curtiss commissioned New York-based architect Bernhardt Emil Muller to design Opa-Locka's unique blend of Arabic, Persian and Moorish themes. The Nebraska native, well acquainted with Europe through extensive travels and a stint studying at Paris's L'Ecole Des Beaux Arts, had never actually seen this style of building in its original setting. That makes the question over who suggested the theme more plausible; both Muller and Curtiss claimed to have hit upon the idea of creating an Arabian Nights-themed city. Regardless, the scheme caused Bright to walk away and suggest Curtiss proceed on his own, which he did, tapping into the in-vogue "Orientalism" fad that was coursing through American culture and cinema (The Thief of Bagdad had come out just a few years earlier).

Muller's initial plans, devised in 1925, suggested a suburban Scherezade: amid a city grid bearing names such as Sultan, Ali Baba, Sharazad Boulevard (a convenient abbreviation) and perhaps one of America's earliest Sesame Streets, a collection of amenities including a bathing casino, archery club and observation tower would arise. His over-the-top designs included moons and star patterns, keyhole arches and an over-abundance of minarets and domes (which are used sparingly in actual Islamic architecture for certain ceremonial structures). Roughly a hundred building in this style were finished in the first few years of Opa-Locka, forming a small fantasy village that was landscaped with imported palms.

By the time a Pullman rail car arrived at the city's brand-new station in 1927 for the Arabian Nights Fantasy Festival, guests could see domes and minarets dotting the small town. An entourage of politicians and local leaders on that train, including the state's then Governor John Martin, were dazzled by a demonstration of riding prowess as men in Arab dress riding white horses charged the "Iron Horse" (railcar), only to fall back and welcome the new arrival. For years afterwards, the city would host an annual Arabian Nights parade, with children marching down the street corner in Arab headdresses.

The city's fantastical design hasn't helped it sidestep the harsh realities of urban problems that have hit other cities. A hurricane in 1926 followed by the 1929 stock market crash effectively popped the region's real estate bubble and curtailed further expansion of the city's Moorish architecture. While the city had a run as an aviation center before and during WWII, the closing of many airfields robbed the city of jobs and development. A slow postwar decline, and a shift to drab and utilitarian structures, soon hit the city; when Muller returned in 1959 for a Pioneer Days event, he pleaded with city fathers to fully realize his original intent, instead of letting the town become a "meaningless jumble of unrelated buildings, painted in hideous colors." Opa-Locka hit a low point in the '80s and '90s when the city, plagued by drug-related crimes, was dubbed the murder capital of the country. Metal barriers were erected in the Triangle, one of the city's main boulevards, to both block traffic and ideally stem the tide of violence.

Efforts by arts and urban planners to revitalize the city, including a restoration and 1987 reopening of the famed city hall, and a succesful 1981 effort to add 20 of the still-standing buildings to the National Register of Historic Places, have sought to use the city's unique setting as a selling point. Curbed Young Gun Germane Barnes and the Opa-Locka Community Development Corporation (which received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts) have brought in artists and urban designers, such as Walter Hood, to help find ways to make the city's architectural past become a future draw. While plenty of cities and towns find themselves in tough situations, the sheer audacity of Opa-Locka's design inspires others to think along the visionary lines that inspired Curtiss to break ground decades ago, including reinventing the city as an arts center. Those modern visions have been upset by recent events; current financial and political crises the ouster of top officials amid claims poor management has nearly bankrupt the city. But in a city built based on a fantasy, it seems like there's always someone inspired to continue the story.

How Urban Planner Germane Barnes is Reviving a Forgotten Miami Suburb [Curbed]