Forging Florida's Sun Screen: Architecture, Film, Orientalism, and the Settling of America's Final Frontier

By Lane, Christina | The Mississippi Quarterly, Summer-Fall 2010 | Go to article overview

Forging Florida's Sun Screen: Architecture, Film, Orientalism, and the Settling of America's Final Frontier


Lane, Christina, The Mississippi Quarterly


IN DESCRIBING THE LAND BOOM OF SOUTH FLORIDA IN THE 1920s, THREE-time Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan once said, "Miami is the only city in the world where you can tell a lie at breakfast that will come true by evening" (Crossen 1). The Great Orator would certainly have known as well as anybody: by that time, he was peddling the swampland that was to become developer George Merrick's six-village Coral Gables community. In this period, between 1919 and 1926, the Southeast Florida region was arguably North America's youngest and newest frontier, given that it remained so underdeveloped late into the twentieth century and was now exploding demographically at the very moment that modern technology and modern media could so dramatically affect real estate and the national popular imagination. Other major US cities, such as Los Angeles or Chicago, may have also been witnessing mounting populations and massive transformation and, indeed, other frontier lands such as the West/Southwest were undergoing regeneration through national parks movements. No area, however, functioned quite like Florida, playing like a "projection screen" for national and global images and imaginings. Appearing to be a blank slate just waiting to be written on by pioneers, Progressives, and entrepreneurs, this region logically would help to cultivate a city such as Miami, where lies could become truths within a single day.

Extended train travel, the Model T Ford, and the acceleration of everyday life were major factors that contributed to South Florida's growth, facilitating the transportation and leisure of countless masses down the peninsula. But it was visual culture that really mattered, especially when it came to selling land and tourism, as developers and speculators mobilized newspaper advertising, brochures, films, photographs, and billboards that were strategically placed in Manhattan so as to suggest to cold, wintered-out New Yorkers: If You Lived in Florida, You Could Be Here by Now. Selling the state was spectacle-driven. Architecture, landscaping, and interior design worked as advertising too. Furthermore, they helped to forge Florida into a fantasy-scape, a symbolic site that depended on a tightening inter-relation between cinema, sales, built environments, and journalism.

South Florida had always been, as architecture critic Beth Dunlop puts it, "this made-up place" ("Inventing" 191). Railroad magnate Henry Flagler had dubbed Miami "The American Riviera" when it was still swampland, while its first residents were still sleeping in tents (Bramson 133). It is more accurate to characterize it as a series of "made up places," as evidenced by the 1920s phenomenon of numerous localized "theme communities," built environments inspired by exotic native cultures or European villas, such as Miami Springs (pueblo), Miami Shores (Mediterranean), or Fort Lauderdale (Venetian). As the real estate market grew, an architectural style unique to the area began to dominate the growing metropolis, taking this notion of pastiche further toward manufactured collage. The "made up" space of Florida produced the made up style known as Mediterranean Revival style, which Dunlop defines as "picture-book pastiche offering instant history, imbuing a brand-new place with Old World Charm" ("Inventing" 191). This has also been described colorfully as "Bastard-Spanish-Moorish-Romanesque-Gothic-Renaissance-Bull-Market-Damn-the- Expense-Style" (Johnston 25). So Florida's sun screen may have been shallow ("picture-book pastiche") but it was still deeply layered, forged, in fact, by a new breed of empire builders who saw themselves as well-traveled, world-worn, and ready for re-invention.

This article proposes to use two main case studies--a 1922 Arabian Nights-inspired film directed by Ruth Bryan Owen (William Jennings Bryan's daughter, she would become Florida's first Congresswoman in 1928) and an Arabian Nights-inspired town built by aviation trailblazer Glenn Curtiss--in order to further understand and contextualize the development of South Florida. …

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