Standing the test of time
Every great city has them – buildings, neighborhoods or communities that are so entwined with the city’s history and culture that they stand the test of time, becoming integral to the city’s identity. Honored by the Miami Chapter of the American Institute of Architects with its annual Test of Time Award, Fisher Island is one of those communities. This prestigious award recognizes projects, in operation over 25 years, that have made a significant and lasting impact on Miami’s urban landscape. Throughout 35 years of continuous development, multiple ownership groups and numerous economic cycles, the common denominator for this development has been SB Architects.
Hired in 1982 to refine and re-envision the master plan for the Fisher Island and create the architectural identity for the island’s first phase of residential development, SB Architects has remained the development’s primary designer for over 35 years. The firm’s original master plan established the vision for an island community with 1,200 residential units sited around a 16-acre central open space that would eventually include a 9-hole Pete Dye golf course, 18-court championship tennis center, and 11-acre park. Later phases included a six-key estate hotel, commercial village fronting the island’s deep-water marina, beach club, world-class spa, numerous phases of residential development and, eventually, a school for the island’s children.
An island for a boat
The Fisher Island of today has been heralded as one of the most expensive and desirable addresses in the country, but that was not always the case. Cast adrift in Biscayne Bay when the government sliced it off to create a shipping channel in 1905, the 216-acre island was flat and barren. It offered little in the way of natural amenities, except for the most important amenity of all — location.
In the 1920s, William Vanderbilt II fell in love with the island, then owned by Carl Fisher – the man primarily responsible for the development of Miami Beach. Fisher proposed a deal: he would give Vanderbilt seven acres on the southeast edge of the island in exchange for Vanderbilt’s famed 250-foot yacht, “Eagle,” (plus $1 to make the exchange legal). Vanderbilt accepted, and on those seven acres he built an estate that provided the keystone of what the island, under the direction of SB Architects, would eventually become.
The beauty of Miami lies in its eclecticism, with myriad cultures and architectural styles standing shoulder to shoulder. However, in this city of Deco Districts and architect Addison Mizner, historic Art Deco and Mediterranean revival architecture hold pride of place. William Vanderbilt’s estate, surrounded by guest houses, tennis courts, swimming pools, crews’ quarters, airplane hanger and marina, carries on that tradition. The Mediterranean revival style – aptly suited to the island’s balmy climate – paid tribute to architectural influence of Addison Mizner and his profound impact on the architectural landscape of South Florida.
A Mediterranean hill town
Topographically, there was little to work with on Fisher island, but Vanderbilt’s estate offered architectural direction and the island’s location and views offered the impetus for development.
The first steps were to renovate and adapt the estate’s historic structures. From the estate original mansion, the design team created the island’s private club; former crew quarters became the Estate Guest Lodge, the former pump house and power plant were re-born as an open-air restaurant and dinner theater. In by far the most extensive renovation, SB Architects transformed Vanderbilt’s cavernous 9,000-square-foot seaplane hangar into a 22,000-square-foot, world-class spa. SB Architects worked closely with Miami’s historical boards to preserve the original character of each building, while imbuing them with new life and uses.
Over the ensuing decades, each succeeding phase of residential development has risen up around the original structure much like an individual village, cohering to the original stylistic intent but individual in scale and identity. Over time, the stepped massing and varying roof-lines have brought a hill-town character to the flat site. The design team approached Fisher Island with an almost fanatic dedication to setting and landscape. Each new phase of the landscape begins with full-grown, mature plants grown on the island’s nursery, so that the lush effect of the tropical planting can be achieved immediately. Even the stately Royal Palms and Malaysian Coconut Palms are planted at near full maturity.
Through over three decades of development, SB Architects has maintained a consistent stylistic intent, attention to detail, and dedication to setting and landscape, resulting in a development that stands the test of time.