The Backdrop of History

Conservationists are fighting to preserve Miami Marine Stadium's unique architecture.

Powerboat races at Miami Marine Stadium drew some of the world's best go-fast enthusiasts.

Everyone attending the Progressive Insurance Miami International Boat Show will see it, try to recall its past and imagine its future. The sheer size of Miami Marine Stadium makes it impossible to miss, and the fun that it could offer boat-show attendees in the future makes it exciting to fantasize about.

The stadium opened in 1963 as America's first purpose-designed venue for powerboat racing. Its cantilevered upper section, even today, is considered an architectural marvel, with the design foisting viewers out over the top of the water's racing stretch.

"By boat racers, it's considered the best place to race a boat in the world. Some of them break down in tears when they talk about it," says Don Worth, who co-founded Friends of Miami Marine Stadium in 2008. "You have the basin with still water, and you have the spectators right over you. One-third of the stadium is cantilevered over the water. In a lot of boat races, you're on the banks of a river, and all you can see is a rooster tail. Here, you have an incredible view under that roof."

The stadium's cantilevered roof was inspired by the shape of sails and the look of the water when the wind blows across it.

From its opening day, the stadium hosted not just powerboat races, but also concerts and events on its floating stage. Elvis Presley filmed Clambake there in 1967. Sammy Davis Jr. famously hugged Richard Nixon on stage during a 1972 rally. Queen played the stadium. So did Steppenwolf.

"People didn't just sit in those stands," Worth says. "They would surround the stage with hundreds of boats. People in inner tubes would be hanging onto the stage. I spoke to a guy who saw The Who there. A bongo drum rolled off the stage, and a guy in an inner tube retrieved it. Jimmy Buffett once jumped off the stage after a concert, into the water, just for fun. It was electric. Just electric."

"In the years to come, families could attend the boat show by day, watch powerboat races in the afternoon and stay for a concert at night."

The stadium was condemned in 1992 after Hurricane Andrew, and graffiti painters have since turned it into a haven for street art. Meanwhile, developers have been itching to knock it down and replace it with luxury condos just 4 miles from the city of Miami.

"The view is spectacular," Worth says. "It's outrageous. If you look at comparable properties in Miami, that view to a developer is probably worth a quarter of a billion dollars."

Miami Marine Stadium, today covered in graffiti, has unique architecture that conservationists are fighting to preserve.

Conservationists like Worth have been fighting for restoration instead. In 2009, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed the stadium as one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, and in 2012 added it to a list of National Treasures that includes Washington National Cathedral in the District of Columbia and the Astrodome in Houston. A recent grant from the Getty Foundation is funding analysis of how to restore the stadium's concrete exterior, while American Express recently gave $80,000 for analysis of the underwater seaside pilings.

"I think that in the past couple of years, the question has not gone to, 'Are we going to restore it?''' says Jason Clement of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "It is more, 'When is it going to happen?' The boat show coming is going to be huge for the stadium. Tens of thousands of eyes will be on it once again." Indeed, in the years to come, families could attend the boat show by day, watch powerboat races in the afternoon and stay for a concert at night, making new memories like the ones Worth is fighting to preserve.

"Dave Brubeck and his son were playing there once," he recalls. "There would always be people in canoes and surfboards, and the people would come out and anchor next to the stage. There was a girl in a bathing suit, and she kept climbing up on the stage, and every time she tried, the crowd went wild. Well, Dave Brubeck thought they were applauding for him. He played 12 encores."

Races of the Past: The ESPN All American Challenge Series was held at Miami Marine Stadium, along with other major events. The last one before the arena closed was the 20th Annual Budweiser Hydroplane Regatta.

Stadium History: Architect Hilario Candela, a 28-year-old emigrant from Cuba, designed the stadium. It is 326 feet long and can seat 6,566 attendees. Candela insisted on building in concrete, lest the salt air eat away at steel beams and support columns.

Boats, Boats, Boats: Not only did go-fast boats pack the parking area outside the stadium on race days, but on concert nights, everyday cruisers — in powerboats, canoes and even inner tubes — amassed in similar fashion on the water, by the stadium's floating stage.