Posted on Sun, Dec. 10, 2006
High stakes for Hialeah: Is the city's 1925 race track -- a national landmark -- in imminent danger?
By BETH DUNLOP
In its day, Hialeah Park was one of America's most important, and most spectacular, race tracks, built to the finest and highest standards of architecture and landscape design -- a place of glamour, status and astounding beauty. Over the years, it was host to some of the nation's greatest horses -- Seabiscuit, Citation and Seattle Slew among them -- and to an annual season of horse racing unparalleled except in a few tracks across America, no more than a dozen in the course of history.
Last week, the track's historic stables were demolished after years of neglect had left them decrepit and dangerous. The glorious French-inspired clubhouse lies in shambles, likewise long-neglected. The track's owner, John Brunetti, wants to develop the site with a large-scale project, though he has neither the zoning nor the approvals to do so. But sad to say, in South Florida that seldom seems an obstacle. After Vizcaya, Hialeah Park may well be the second most significant historic place in Miami -- architecture and landscape unified into a brilliant whole -- but it has been allowed to languish to the point that parts of it are being lost and the rest is in dire jeopardy. And yet, all this devastation -- the long years of abusive neglect, dire damage from two years' worth of hurricanes, now demolition of a vital part of the track's historic content -- has taken place without significant public outcry.
Its clubhouse has a sweeping formal staircase and broad terraces and a memorable landscape marked by grand rows of trees and tropical gardens, Hialeah Park is a landmark of national stature. At one point, it was designated a wildlife sanctuary for its famous flock of flamingoes, who were an extraordinary, mesmerizing sight to behold. ''It was the jewel of Southern racing, with the elegant landscaping, its magnificent architecture and its safe and comforting track for the horses,'' laments James E. Bassett, the retired president and board chairman of another of America's historic tracks, Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky.
One could make this into a complex issue and discuss changing times, American leisure habits, demographics, economics and even the appeal -- at least to the gambling crowd -- of online gaming. Those might possibly explain why Hialeah Park lost its preeminency as a race track, but they certainly would not explain why it should be possible to let one of our foremost landmarks be sacrificed for yet another development.
''Nothing matches Hialeah for those long vistas, the softly-waving pine trees, the drama of the flamingoes,'' says Nancy Stout, the photographer and author of the book Great American Thoroughbred Race Tracks.
And they're Horse racing began on the site in 1925, but it was not until six years later that Joseph Widener -- a Philadelphian with an immense family fortune -- bought the track. Widener, an important art collector of the era, hired Lester Geisler, a young architect who had worked in Palm Beach with Addison Mizner and then formed his own firms. Geisler based his design for the clubhouse on French prototypes, including the Loire Valley chateau of Azay-le-Rideau, but also traveled far to study prototypes such as the famous French racecourse at Longchamps and the American beauties, the tracks at Belmont and Saratoga Springs. Added to this mix was a landscape architect named H.L. Clark, who -- according to Stout -- was able to find ''the most beautiful and durable materials'' in Florida.
And so it flourished over the years, and then, by the 1990s, began a slow and then steep decline. The last races were run at Hialeah in 2001. And now it is wasting away. The demolition of the stables is in itself a crime; it is known legally as demolition by neglect, and in some cities with stronger historic preservation ordinances, a complete reconstruction could be ordered, but alas -- at this moment -- that is not the case. A small group of citizens, led by 29-year-old mortgage banker Alex Fuentes, has been vigilantly following the fate of Hialeah Park, and advocating on its behalf.
Although the track is not currently zoned for residential use, Brunetti's plans, on file with the South Florida Regional Planning Commission, call for essentially covering the whole site with buildings -- 3,760 residential housing units, many of them in high-rise apartment buildings, along with almost one million square feet of retail shopping. Only the clubhouse would be preserved, as a museum, but most of Hialeah Park's glorious 220-acre site would be gone, paved over into ordinariness. The zoning to do this is not in place, nor are the requisite regional approvals for a large-scale development. Hialeah's Historic Preservation Board has publicly opposed this, in a resolution passed last March. The state's historic preservation board, likewise, has expressed its serious misgivings.
All these are important, yet they beg the larger question, which is why there has been no major public effort to save Hialeah Park in its entirety. Where has Miami-Dade County been in all this? Why wasn't the acquisition of the track on the countywide bond issue in 2004, a portion of the $2.9 billion approved by voters to preserve and enhance this community? Where has the state been with its endangered lands fund? Surely there are not more significant sites to buy, no buildings more beautiful nor landscapes more eloquent.
Imagine Hialeah as an equestrian park (with the stables rebuilt as they were) attracting international attention. And even when no equestrian events were on tap, there would be the lawns, the gardens, and the flamingoes, of course. The imagination could take off from there. Many Miamians (and I include myself in this group) have a strong emotional connection to Hialeah Park. As a child who spent parts of the winter in Florida, I fed apples and carrots to the horses there. My son, now 23, did the same. Over the years, my husband and I spent many a happy afternoon at the races watching the horses, observing the crowds, admiring the architecture, enjoying the landscape.
We'll never get back to the glory days of racing, to the timeless afternoons at the track that are now seldom and storied -- the Kentucky Derby being the prime example. But we can keep the place and its landscape, and use it as it ought to be used, but with an eye to our times. We need to preserve Hialeah Park, and we need to do so with permanency and in perpetuity. We owe it to the architecture. We owe it to the landscape. And we owe it to the great horses who ran there over the decades, and might even one day, run there again.