A Story Told in Fragments

A Story Told in Fragments
A Story Told in Fragments
The sandcast concrete walls of the former public library auditorium echo the sculpted coral rock facade of the Bass Museum in Collins Park

A city as young as Miami Beach isn’t supposed to have many ruins, but some of our region’s most interesting buildings are fragments of structures whose multi-layered history tells a lot about the growth and change of the metropolis. The strange concrete cylinder in Collins Park is a great example. Built as part of the new public library in 1962, the building was left to stand isolated and alone in the 1980s when the rest of the complex was demolished. It has been largely abandoned since then, its door perpetually locked, leaving passerby to ask what, exactly, is this odd structure?

The drum-like structure was built as the auditorium for the new public library. It was intended to help cultivate literary culture in Miami Beach by hosting readings, lectures, films and book fairs. Herbert A. Mathes, the New York-born architect responsible for a number of Miami Beach hotels (including the Parisian, the Continental and the Allison), designed the new library as two contrasting pavilions – the stacks and reading room were set in an open and airy building with floor-toceiling windows and a broad porch opening toward Collins Avenue, while the auditorium played its solid counterpart.

A Story Told in FragmentsWhen the library building was demolished, the auditorium instead adopted a wonderful visual relationship with the Bass Museum – which had been built as the Miami Beach public library between 1930 and 1934 – with the auditorium’s sand-cast concrete walls echoing the sculpted coral rock façade of the older building. The older building was designed by Russell Pancoast to reflect the symmetry of the formal gardens in Collins Park, which were planted in the 1920s and donated to the city by the architect’s grandfather, Miami Beach pioneer John A. Collins. Pancoast’s library housed the first public space for exhibiting art in the Miami areas, and after the construction of the new library, the building was turned over to a new institution, the Bass Museum of Art. But the story of the Bass will have to wait for another column…

Built at a time when as many as 2,000 vacationers would sign up for library cards every year, the new library illustrated the optimism of the early 1960s. This was the period when Lincoln Road was redesigned as a pedestrian mall and populated with Morris Lapidus’s playful follies. The library’s construction happened in the middle of a five year period in which the Fountainebleau saw Frank Sinatra party in A Hole in the Head, Jerry Lewis working for tips in The Bellboy, and Sean Connery spending the afternoon with Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger.

The auditorium’s richly sculpted surfaced is a tale unto itself. Albert Vrana, a New Jerseyborn artist who worked in Coconut Grove, wrapped the entire building in a concrete basrelief sculpture whose panels he cast directly into wet sand he had shaped by hand. Titled “The Story of Man”, the abstract design makes reference to the role of the written word in the development of human culture. Mathes surrounded the auditorium with a shallow pool whose undulating surface reflects light on Vrana’s sculpture. The pool also originally cooled the condenser water from the library’s air conditioners, but this prosaic role belies the poetic depth of the auditorium.

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