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The Nation's Weirdest City Hall

This place was originally called Opatishawockalocka, allegedly an ancient Tequesta Indian word meaning “big island in the swamp covered with many trees.” Actually I think it meant “word with too many letters than no one can pronounce.” Whatever the meaning, it was too long for a town’s name, so developer Glen H. Curtiss shortened it to Opa-locka. You’ll recognize Curtis as the famous aviation pioneer who ranks in history with the Wright Brothers, Lindbergh, and Howard Hughes.

Curtis was also a developer in South Florida who, along with his partner James Bright, purchased 220,000 acres of Dade County. Florida was experiencing a boom in new houses back in 1920 when Glen Curtis contracted with architect Bernard Muller to design a town that looked like it was straight-out of “Arabian Nights.” This was the beginning of the city of Opa-locka which Curtis incorporated in 1926 as an “Arabian Fantasy.”

The inspiration for the weird development came from the 1924 film “The Thief of Baghdad” which starred Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. Between 1925 and 1928, Curtis constructed 105 structures, including a train station and city hall, all with spiral staircases, onion-shaped domes, minarets and towers that would have pleased any sheik. The individual homes, each with its own minaret, were 1000 square foot bungalows that sold for about 1300 dollars in 1927. The streets were laid out with Arabian names like Sesame, Shakar, Ali Baba, Cairo, Harem, and Sharazad which was shortened from Schekerezade because no one could pronounce it. When it was finished in 1928, this Baghdad of Dade County boasted the largest collection of Moorish architecture in the United States. The only thing missing were camels and a desert. When Florida governor, John Martin visited in 1927 he was welcomed at the train station by city officials wearing turbans and dressed like sheiks and mounted on white horses.

The town was severely damaged in the 1926 hurricane, which destroyed some of the original buildings, but Curtis kept his project going building a golf course, hotel, and a zoological garden. When the Florida land boom ended, Glen Curtis deeded the town to the county. Opa-locka is well-known in military history for its airport that was previously a base for blimps and later home to one of the Goodyear blimps. This was the airport from which Amelia Earhart launched her ill-fated flight around the world. But it’s Opa-locka’s Moorish-style City Hall that attracts so much attention. With its colorful onion-shaped domes, keyhole archways, fountains, towers, and palm-shaded courtyard it looks like it belongs in Persia. Originally it was the sales headquarters for the Curtis development but today it’s the weirdest city hall in America

Over the years Opa-lock with its population of 17,000 has suffered from economic decline, political scandals, and social problems which have left the city’s Moorish motif in serious need of repair. When the unique city hall was scheduled to be demolished it became a rallying point for people and that has led to not only saving the city hall but to a campaign to rescue 72 other Moorish-style buildings in the city. In recent years the community has been hosting an annual Arabian Nights Festival each May that is growing in attendance. The city hall is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places along with twenty other buildings in Opa-locka.


Weird Florida

 

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