Graffiti art gives abandoned Miami stadium a second life

GWEN IFILL: Now we travel to Miami for a story of architecture, graffiti, and a city's identity.

Jeffrey Brown explores, in the latest report in his series Culture at Risk.

JEFFREY BROWN: It sits abandoned on a thin stretch of land called Virginia Key, overlooking a manmade basin between Miami's South Channel and Biscayne Bay, a magnificent setting, downtown Miami in the near distance.

Today, the 6,500-seat Marine Stadium is littered with garbage, every reachable inch of it covered in graffiti, forgotten by many, but not those who remember its role as a cultural centerpiece for a rising city. One of those is Miami's own music star Gloria Estefan.

GLORIA ESTEFAN: This is one of those things in the city that has history. It's almost 50 years old.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's — 50 years old is not that long, right?

GLORIA ESTEFAN: In Miami, it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the stadium turned 50 years old just last December. And Estefan has joined a grassroots effort not only to save it, but to give it renewed life.

In the 1950s and '60s, Miami was still finding its identity as something more than a seasonal tourist destination. When Fidel Castro took power in Cuba in 1959, waves of Cubans began leaving for South Florida, seeking new lives and redefining the city's culture.

HILARIO CANDELA, Architect: Then Castro came in, and absolutely nothing, no work whatsoever.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of those exiles was an architect named Hilario Candela, 27 years old and fresh out of design school, he was asked to create a simple steel grandstand as a venue for powerboat races.

HILARIO CANDELA: I wanted it to be something very special because I realized that the site was fantastic and, therefore, I was facing a fantastic responsibility.

JEFFREY BROWN: Candela resolved on a far more ambitious work, boasting a 326-foot long cantilevered roof, at the time the longest in the world, all made from poured-in-place concrete.

You think of this as a sculpture?


JEFFREY BROWN: So, it's a piece of art?

HILARIO CANDELA: Yes, I do. I believe that very strongly. And in terms of materials, concrete is a very honest material.

JEFFREY BROWN: What does honest mean?

HILARIO CANDELA: It means that, if you think about it, a lot of the architectural and structural process, you use a variety of materials that are covered with another skin, but behind that skin is the true bones of the building.

When you use poured-in-place concrete, the true bones of the building is what you express on the outside.

JEFFREY BROWN: The stadium opened in December 1963, and while serving its original purpose for boat races quickly broadened uses to rowing regattas, religious services, even a movie set for Elvis Presley's 1967 comedy "Clam Bake."

ACTOR: It's Elvis barreling and belting that wild Presley beat.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was used for political rallies. This is where Sammy Davis Jr. embraced President Richard Nixon in 1972.

Most of all, it became a popular concert venue. Jimmy Buffett famously jumped off the floating stage. Then a rising star, Cuban American Gloria Estefan played a show here in the mid-'80s.

GLORIA ESTEFAN: I was literally over water and water behind me, boats all around me. It's a 360-degree experience. And to me particularly, this is very symbolic, this building, because the Cubans came here after the revolution. And we really built a big part of the city in many different ways.

JEFFREY BROWN: In 1992, Hurricane Andrew ripped through South Florida, leaving more than $25 billion of destruction in its wake. The city, not wanting to continue with the upkeep, claimed the stadium was damaged beyond repair and attempted to have it torn down.

HILARIO CANDELA: It was close to being torn down, not because it was in a bad state of repair. It was just that, politically, they wanted to use it, the land, for something else.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it's a valuable spot. Right?

HILARIO CANDELA: Yes, sir. Yes, sir.

JEFFREY BROWN: But an engineering study confirmed the stadium was sound. So, instead of being demolished outright, it was locked up, left to time and neglect.

LUIS BERROS, Artist: We enjoyed the surfaces. We enjoyed the privacy. We enjoyed the shade.

JEFFREY BROWN: Except for people like street artist Luis Berros, for whom it became a mecca for graffiti art, skateboarding, and parkour, a kind of urban gymnastics.

LUIS BERROS: Well, the first time we ever came in here and painted, it was a crew, which is a group of us. And you have your lookouts. Everybody had a job to do. And you would take turns.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean look out for security or something.

LUIS BERROS: Of course, yes, look out for police or whoever came by that — you weren't supposed to be in the building.

JEFFREY BROWN: Vandalism then, now something much more.

HILARIO CANDELA: They have kept the building alive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Kept it alive?

HILARIO CANDELA: Yes. They have brought new life into the building.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you like this?


JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, the Friends of Miami Marine Stadium, the group that formed in 2008 to save the structure, has embraced graffiti art as part of its history and as a way to raise money for its future.

On the day we visited, the group had brought in artists from around the world to create new works that, once complete, will be photographed, with the prints sold off.

One star of the graffiti art world who goes by the name RISK flew in from Los Angeles and was happy to be part of the effort.

RISK, Artist: I think a lot of graffiti artists tend to look at urbanscapes as beautiful. And a place like this is really cool because it had so much life in the past, and then it died. And now people are bringing it back to life with art.

JEFFREY BROWN: Going further, architect Candela, who's now overseeing restoration plans, wants to incorporate the graffiti. But big questions remain, how much of it to keep, in what form and how to remove the rest.

ROSA LOWINGER, Architecture Conservator: I would say in this spot here we probably behind about 200 layers of paint.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two hundred layers?

ROSA LOWINGER: I would say 200 layers of paint.

JEFFREY BROWN: Conservator Rosa Lowinger is leading a study on how to once again expose the raw concrete.

ROSA LOWINGER: … is that these thick layers come off fairly easily, because we can literally…


JEFFREY BROWN: You're doing it, right?

ROSA LOWINGER: You can literally peel these upper layers. You can steam them off. You can pressure-wash them off. When you get down to the floor, to these areas where the graffiti is embedded into the surface or deep into these layers, that's where the tricky part is.

JEFFREY BROWN: Important support for all this came from the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a nonprofit that in 2009 put the stadium on its list of most endangered places.

And the project goes well beyond the stadium itself. At his home, Candela showed me the plans for a grand new public space, including a large park on what is now an empty parking lot.

HILARIO CANDELA: We're going to have things — we're going to do things in the stadium that have — we never thought of.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, 50 years later, you sound as energized as probably you were at 28.

HILARIO CANDELA: Oh. Well, I hope I am. I don't like to talk anymore about the past. I only want to think about the future of the stadium. And I want the future to be as quick as possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Candela means it. The city has given the friends group a limited time to raise $30 million to restore and reopen this piece of Miami's history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: From stadiums to highway overpasses, watch Jeff's extended interview with graffiti artist RISK on the evolution of his art form. That's on Art Beat.