Architecture Focus: The Alfred I. duPont Building
BY TOM AUSTIN
One of several formidable vaults housed deep in the duPont’s recesses
Miami, like some hardy and forever greedy sea anemone, has always thrived on the boom-and-bust surges of the local real estate market. After the land rush of the 1920s, the city was hit hard and early by the Depression, but by 1937, Miami was ready to rock some epic property again: That year, construction began on the 17-story Alfred I. duPont Building, the first downtown skyscraper created after the 1928 launch of the Dade County Courthouse. Opening on Christmas Day, 1939, and built on the site of the former Halcyon Hotel, the debut of the duPont Building signaled the return of Miami’s outsize ambitions: We were ready to do business again.
The duPont Building, anchoring the corner of Flagler Street and NE Second Avenue, was originally built as the headquarters for Florida National Bank. The bank was founded by Alfred duPont, who died in 1935 and missed the opening party. (In time, the Alfred I. duPont Testamentary Trust went on to own one million acres of Florida land and the Florida East Coast Railway, built, as it happens, by Henry Flagler.)
A stupendous slice of Depression Moderne architecture designed by Marsh and Saxelbye of Jacksonville, the duPont Building made the National Register of Historic Places list in 1989. Its base is wrapped in black granite, with small octagonal windows set within the stone. Back in the day, customers rode an escalator to the second-floor lobby, where commercial banking was conducted. From the beginning, the street level was all about a mix of pedestrian-friendly retail stores, a forward-thinking augury of New Urbanism dictates to come.
The 30-foot ceilings of the old banking lobby are visible through multipane casement-style windows, framed by decorative metal grille work and floral decorations, a wink bearing Art Deco’s whimsies. The office floors have double-hung sash windows accented by stylized motifs, with the window separations tinted green; the nicely articulated 16th and 17th floors are set back from Flagler Street.
The magnificence of the old banking lobby is unveiled slowly as visitors ride up the escalator, in the manner of the Japanese conceal-and-reveal approach to vistas of opulence. This would be the opposite tack to contemporary corporate headquarters, oftentimes accomplished with the subtlety of a butcher slapping meat on a cutting block.
That first glimpse of the temple-to-capitalism beauty of the 22,000-square-foot mezzanine level, just past an ornate brass gate, is like nothing else in Miami: The lobby is now pure theater, used as a film set and event space for parties. The five former bank-teller cages, customarily utilized as bars, incorporate stylized floral motifs, lanterns, and original wrought-iron grille work. The floors and columns encompass acres of rich, creamy marble; the heart-of-cypress beams of the ceiling are painted with odes to the conquest of the Seminole Indians and other aspects of our local commercial history, while the polished brass elevator doors have reliefs of flamingos, pelicans, and herons. The massive old vaults—one is 1,500 square feet—look as if they could easily resist a nuclear air strike. Even without the clamor of banking and commerce, the lobby still radiates the conviction that making money is good, virtuous, and even, in the right plutocratic hands, tasteful.
Over the years, the space has been given a social workout or two. In 2004, The Wolfsonian-FIU used the lobby for a Prohibition Gala featuring the elegant Peter Duchin Orchestra. More recently, Cash Money Records used it for the 2010 welcome-home party for Lil Wayne, who went to jail for gun possession. That image is enough to make a student of history mourn Miami’s sort-of-stately past. On the other hand, the duPont fortune was founded on gunpowder factories, and Alfred I. duPont ran into some family trouble with his unseemly marriage to a divorced cousin. As Lil Wayne sings on the seminal “Tha Block Is Hot,” “No respect for no stunt, and no money without power.”
photographs by carlosbaez.com (ballroom); gary ressler/alfred I. dupont archives (vault); ligaphotography.com (doors)