Security Building in Downtown Miami

Security Building on NE First AvenueCover: Security Building on NE First Avenue

Since its opening, the Security Building has seen more than its share of change. While the building’s name and tenants have turned over often through the years, its architecture and history remind us of a special time in Miami’s past.

Built in 1926 as the corporate office building to one of Miami’s most important financial institutions, the Security Building represented “security” to early Miami homeowners and builders. However, the building bust of the 1920s changed the fate of both company and building. While the company eventually went out of business, the building began an ever-changing evolution. It remains in downtown Miami as a symbol of resiliency and a reminder of how much Miami has evolved since its construction.

McKinnon Hotel

View looking southeast from McKinnon Hotel.

Figure 1: View looking southeast from McKinnon Hotel.

Even prior to the great building boom of the mid-1920s, there was a lot of new construction to attempt to keep up with the many visitors and new permanent residents arriving in Miami. The end of the 1910s represented a time when accommodations were in short supply and the City of Miami couldn’t issue building permits fast enough.

Most of the building centered in the downtown area. One of the projects started in 1919 was the McKinnon Hotel. It was built at 117 NE First Avenue. First Avenue was still referred to as Avenue C until the Chaille Plan was instituted in 1920. The hotel was situated in the middle of the block on the east side of NE First Avenue.

The hotel was seven stories in height and cost $140,000 to build. It opened in January of 1920. The same month it opened, Wo Kee & Son announced their new Chinese and American café in the lobby of the hotel.

Ad for Wo Kee & Son cafe in 1920.

Figure 2: Ad for Wo Kee & Son cafe in 1920.

The McKinnon Hotel was the first building in Miami to create a basement that extended under the street level. The permit allowed the builders of the hotel to extend the basement under NE First Avenue to the west and all the way to NE First Street to the south. It traversed under a department store that fronted NE First Street.

The purpose of the basement was to allow for an efficient disposal of garbage and the acceptance of supplies such as coal and other deliveries from the street. The plan called for a sidewalk elevator and a plate glass cover that was substantial enough to sustain all weights.
One concern was whether it was possible to construct a water proof basement in Miami. In a Miami Herald article dated June 1, 1919, it was written that “the consensus was that it could be done, just as successfully here as it was in Chicago”.

McKinnon Sold to Dade County Security Co.

Security Hotel in 1925.

Figure 3: Security Hotel in 1925.

The hotel operated as the McKinnon for less than two years when it was sold to the Dade County Security Corporation (shortened to Dade Security), in October of 1921. Founded in 1901, Dade Security was a pioneer building and loan company. Many of the officers were pioneer business leaders in Miami. Two of the more notable officers were J.E. Lummus and Josiah Chaille.

The company was one of the most significant financial concerns in Miami during the first three decades of the twentieth century. In 1923, Dade Security financed the construction of over one thousand homes in the Miami area. Its business of funding construction projects and mortgages would prove problematic during the collapse of the building boom in the mid-1920s.

After the sale of the McKinnon, it was renamed to the Security Hotel. Its new owner wanted to ensure anyone who stayed at their hotel knew that security and safety was a primary consideration for the proprietors.

Dade Security also invested to upgrade the two-year old hotel. They remodeled the lobby and the second level.

Hotel Razed for Office Building

Security Building lot next to Gesu Church.

Figure 4: Security Building lot next to Gesu Church.

During the height of the boom in the 1920s, the demand for office space was out pacing the supply in downtown Miami. Dade Security originally intended to add three stories to the hotel and convert it into an office building. Ultimately, the company opted to raze the existing structure and replace it with a new building.

In early September of 1925, Dade Security formerly announced their intention to knock down the hotel and replace it with a sixteen-story office tower. They gave their commercial tenants until September 20th to vacate the property. Following the vacancy date, Florida Wrecking Company demolished and cleared the six-year old hotel.

The construction of the building plus furnishings cost Dade Security one million dollars. The Security Building has a frontage of fifty feet on NE First Avenue and a depth of one hundred and fifty feet. Dade Security hired an architect from New York to design their office building.

Architect Robert Greenfield

Robert Greenfield.

Figure 5: Robert Greenfield.

When Robert Greenfield was preparing to transition from New York to Miami, he was delayed by a snow storm in February of 1926. In an article in the Miami Herald on February 7th, he proclaimed “I am all for sunny Miami”.

Greenfield learned the trade of architecture in New York City. He served several years overseeing projects for the New York Board of Education. He later supervised the construction of the New York City Customs House and Assay House. He also oversaw the design of buildings in Philadelphia, Lansing Michigan and Pittsburgh.

His first project in Miami was the Security Building. Following the completion of his first project, Robert Greenfield also designed many homes, apartments, schools and churches in Miami. His work included the Buena Vista School, the Randall Hill apartments and the Allapattah Methodist chapel.

Design & Construction of Building

The design of the building was described in many ways when it was discussed in the local papers. An article in the Miami Herald in November of 1926 described the style as “French Renaissance”. Another article referred to the style as “Grecian architecture”. The mansard roof was considered a signature element of the Second Empire style, which was popular during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Security Building under construction in August, 1928.

Figure 6: Security Building under construction in August, 1928.

However, as described in the historic designation report filed in 2003, the style between the three-story base and the roof most closely resembles the design characteristics of the Chicago School. The design was named for the technological advancements that enabled the construction of high rise buildings in Chicago during the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The interior of the building was just as exquisite as its exterior. The lobby stretched across the western front of the building. There were chandeliers that hung from the second floor. Marble stairways with copper handrails were located on both the north and the south ends of the lobby, providing access from the ground to the second level. The second level overlooked the lobby.

The building is 166 feet high. The outside façade used ornamental granite that extends to the top floor. Fred T. Ley and company was the builder. Greenfield moved his office into the Security Building when it opened and signed a contract to also manage it on behalf of Dade Security.

When it opened in January of 1927, the building consisted of 275 offices and a bank of four high speed elevators. The entire first floor was occupied by the Dade County Security Company.

All those involved with the project were very proud of the Security Building. In a Miami Herald article in May of 1927, architect Robert Greenfield took exception to a report by George Bennett, of the Pittsburgh Testing Laboratory, who stated the Dade County Courthouse was the best constructed building in the south.

Greenfield declared the “Security Building as second to none” with design and construction that adhered to the highest standard of excellence. In his view, the Security Building was perfect. He felt that his accomplishment should be considered the best built building in the south.

Dade Security Files for Bankruptcy

With the abrupt end to the building boom just prior to the opening of the Security Building, the flagship tenant began to feel the economic downturn shortly after moving into their new headquarters. The large number of defaults on construction loans and mortgages quickly took its toll on Dade Security.

By February of 1928, the company had to restructure through bankruptcy. While operating under receivership, the officers never found a way to reverse their financial hardship.

The company continued to limp along through the stock market crash of 1929 and then through the height of the great depression. However, by mid-1935 the company was forced to liquidate.

The sale of the mortgages preceded the sale of Dade Security’s two biggest assets: The Security and Congress buildings. The two buildings were sold at auction in September of 1940 for $480,150 to T.T. Scott of Jacksonville, Florida. Scott was a banker and real estate investor.

Pan American Bank Building

In December of 1945, the newly formed Pan American Bank became the anchor tenant in the Security Building. T.T. Scott was one of the organizers of the institution. It was only natural that the bank began operating out of a building that he owned. Scott chose to give the bank naming rights. It was called the “Pan American Bank Building” for the next seven years.

When Pan American Bank purchased land on the corner of SE Third Avenue and SE First Street in 1951, they announced their plans to move. Once Pan American Bank vacated, the building was renamed back to the Security Building on September 1, 1952.

However, Scott was the founder another financial institution following the move of Pan American Bank. In June of 1953, the Metropolitan Bank of Miami moved into the ground floor of the Security Building. Like the Pan American Bank before them, they became the main tenant of the Security Building.

Building Sold to Arthur Vining Davis

On April 2, 1956, Arthur Vining Davis purchased the Security Building from T.T. Scott for $850,000. In addition to the purchase of 117 NE First Avenue, in a separate transaction, Davis also purchased the Bedford Building, which was located on the same block.

A year later, on April 1, 1957, the building’s name changed once again. It was renamed to the Metropolitan Bank Building to provide brand awareness for the bank.

The Metropolitan Bank of Miami was acquired by Capital National Bank in the summer of 1962. A couple of years later, the name of the building changed again. From 1964 until 2015, the building was referred to as the Capital Bank Building or just the Capital Building.

Two Buildings Traded for an Island

By the late 1960s, the Capital Bank Building was owned by Edwin Gage of Pontiac, Michigan. Gage also owned the Langford Building at the time.

As part of an unorthodox real estate transaction in August of 1969, Gage traded both buildings for a 135-acre island near Fort Myers, Florida. The island was called Lover’s Key which was owned by George French.

The terms of the transaction gave French both the Capital Bank and Langford buildings. In turn, Gage acquired Lover’s Key. Gage’s plan was to build a community of apartments and single-family homes on the island.

Peoples Downtown National Bank

Branch of Peoples National Bank in 1950s.

Figure 7: Branch of Peoples National Bank in 1950s.

Leonard Usina was transferred to Miami by Ed Ball when he was Vice President of the Du Pont owned Florida National Bank and Trust in 1932. He left Florida National to start his own bank in 1950. He named it the Peoples Bank of Miami Shores. Over time he expanded and organized several bank branches under the name of the People’s National Bank Group.

In April of 1972, Usina’s bank group announced the acquisition of a majority share of the Capital National Bank. He renamed the bank Peoples Downtown National bank because he wanted to focus on lending to rebuild downtown Miami.

Usina said that his intent was to lend money for construction of new buildings, or rehabilitation of old buildings, to revitalize the downtown area. He wanted to promote the construction of reasonably priced apartment buildings to bring people back to living in downtown Miami.

Usina lived in a penthouse at the Four Ambassadors in the Brickell neighborhood from the time the complex opened in 1968. He was a big advocate of both living and working in the city core. His personal philosophy was “you can find most of the things you need downtown”. In the early 1970s, he was one of the few that was promoting the return to the urban core.

In his first year running the bank branch, Usina turned a money loser into a profitable company. At the end of 1972, the bank showed a profit of more than $28,000 compared with a loss of more than $400,000 in 1971. The loss occurred prior to Usina taking over management of the downtown location.

Pan American & NCNB Acquire Peoples Bank

The bank Usina founded was doing well while he remained in good health. However, he was slowed by a bone disease and other medical ailments. In October of 1981, Leonard Usina passed away at the age of 92.

A month after Usina’s death, Pan American bank tendered an offer to purchase seven branches of the Peoples Bank Group in November of 1981. What made the acquisition complicated was that Usina, nor any other shareholder, had more than a five percent ownership interest in the bank.

Despite the complication, an agreement was made by Pan American Bank to acquire a majority share in the bank and most of the Peoples Bank branches. The acquiring organization was primarily interested in obtaining People’s strategic locations. They noted the importance of operating in Miami Shores and the Sunshine Industrial Park in North Dade. The downtown branch was not part of the acquisition.

In September of 1982, NCNB from Charlotte, North Carolina, purchased the only branch of People’s Downtown National Bank. The acquisition provided NCNB a charter to operate in South Florida. The bank had plans to expand into the Latin American market and felt they were best positioned to do so from downtown Miami.

Historic Designation & Capital Lofts

Interior of Capital Lofts in 2008.

Figure 8: Interior of Capital Lofts in 2008.

Through the remainder of the 1980s and 1990s, the Capital Bank Building continued to have a bank as its primary tenant. The Universal National Bank was the building’s primary tenant in the late 1980s and 1990s. In addition to the bank, the building also featured the Jewelry Center. This group of wholesalers manufactured, repaired and sold jewelry to retailers like Mayors, Burdines and Luria’s.

In March of 2003, the Capital Building was identified as part of a historic district in downtown Miami. The City of Miami Historic and Environmental Preservation Board filed for local designation for the building.

The Security Building’s application was approved in 2003 and given the associated protections that go along with historic designation. While the exterior cannot be demolished or materially altered, a new owner in the early 2000s had plans to reconfigure the interior of the building.

Haim Einhorn proposed the Capital Lofts project where he would custom configure an office loft for prospective buyers. The project began converting floors in the building to office condominiums beginning in 2004, but the office condo market vanished after the 2008 financial collapse. The financial crisis left the Capital Lofts project in limbo and it was eventually sold to a different group.

WeWork Leases Security Building

Security Building in 2015.

Figure 9: Security Building in 2015.

On June 30, 2015, the Capital Building was sold for $23.5 million. The following October, WeWork agreed to lease the entire building. The company provides shared workspace, community and office services for startups and freelancers.

WeWork has reverted to the building’s original name when referring to their downtown Miami location. At present time, the Security Building WeWork location is still being renovated in preparation for its opening. It should be ready for tenants to begin occupying it soon.

The Security Building provides an excellent example of how an old building can be appreciated for its architecture and history, but also remain a functional member of the downtown building landscape. The Security Building provides an example of how other buildings in downtown Miami should be evaluated when it comes time to decide between demolition or preservation. There are plenty of great historic buildings in the downtown area that deserve similar consideration.

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Resources:

  • Book: “Miami and Dade County Florida”, E.V. Blackman.
  • Report: “Security Building Designation Report”, March 18, 2003.
  • Miami Herald: “Builders of McKinnon Hotel to Construct Under Sidewalk Basement, First in Miami”, June 1, 1919.
  • Miami Herald: “McKinnon Now Security Hotel”, October 7, 1921.
  • Miami Herald: “Hotel Will Be Razed”, September 17, 1925.
  • Miami Herald: “Building Ready January 1”, November 6, 1926.
  • Miami Herald: “Perfection Claimed by Security Building”, May 18, 1927.
  • Miami Herald: “Bankruptcy Action Fails in US Court”, February 9, 1928.
  • Miami Herald: “Security Company Condition is Subject”, March 15, 1933.
  • Miami Herald: “Sale of Congress, Security Buildings Ok’d”, September 27, 1940.
  • Miami Herald: “Again It Will Be Security Building”, July 28,1952.
  • Miami Herald: “Tentative Ok Given to Bank”, June 14, 1953.
  • Miami Herald: “Davis Planning 2 Skyscrapers”, March 31, 1956.
  • Miami Herald: “2 Landmarks Here Traded for Island”, August 6, 1969.
  • Miami Herald: “Purchase of Bank Planned”, April 14, 1972.
  • Miami Herald: “New Owners Produce Turnaround at Money Losing Bank”, April 20, 1973.
  • Miami Herald: “Offer is Made to Acquire People Bank”, November 6, 1981.
  • Miami Herald: “Developers Offer Custom Fit on Condos”, March 10, 2003.
  • Miami Herald: “Miami Landmarks Up For Protective Designation”, March 18, 2003.
  • Miami Herald: “Investors Bet on Historic Downtown Condo”, April 1, 2014.
  • Miami Herald: “Security Building Sold in Downtown Miami for $23.5M”, July 30, 2015.

Images:

  • Cover: Security Building on NE First Avenue. Courtesy of the Miami Herald.
  • Figure 1: View looking southeast from McKinnon Hotel. Courtesy of Florida Memory. Photographer was William A. Fishbaugh.
  • Figure 2: Ad for Wo Kee & Son cafe in 1920. Courtesy of the Miami Herald.
  • Figure 3: Security Hotel in 1925. Courtesy of Florida Memory. Photographer was Richard B. Hoit.
  • Figure 4: Security Building lot next to Gesu Church. Courtesy of Miami News.
  • Figure 5: Robert Greenfield. Courtesy of the Pittsburgh Press.
  • Figure 6: Security Building under construction in August of 1928. Courtesy of Miami News.
  • Figure 7: Postcard of branch of Peoples National Bank in 1950s.
  • Figure 8: Interior of Capital Lofts in 2008. Courtesy of Cervera Real Estate.
  • Figure 9: Security Building in 2015. Courtesy of the Miami Herald.

2 Comments on "Security Building in Downtown Miami"

  1. Cindy Fenwick | June 20, 2017 at 6:34 am | Reply

    What an interesting story. As a native Miamiam, born in 1959, I love reading about the history of Miami as well as the preservation of its earlier built buildings. Thank you for the time it took to arrange this story.

  2. A major law firm, Dixon, DeJarnett,Bradford,Williams, and McKay where tenants in the ’50 and ’60.

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