Glenn Curtiss during the Florida land boom of the 1920s found the Opa-Locka project on 4.2 acres in Miami-Dade County. “Opa-
Eighty-six building was designed by Muller in a Moorish Revival style. Elements of the buildings included onion-shaped domes, minarets, crenelated parapets, Saracenic arches, watchtowers, mosaic tile, and outdoor spiral staircases. To complete the Arabian theme, streets were named Ali Baba Avenue, Sinbad Avenue, Sharazad Avenue, Caliph Street, and Aladdin Street. Often, Curtiss boasted that he was building the “Baghdad of Dade County.”
The Father of Naval Aviation
Before Curtiss began the Opa-Locka project he was known as the “The Father of Naval Aviation.” He was born on May 21, 1878, in Hammondsport, New York. Only going to the eighth grade, his first job was at the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company (later Eastman Kodak Company) where his interests in mechanics and inventions became evident. While at Eastman, he invented the stencil machine that the company adopted and also built a rudimentary camera to study photography.
After Curtiss left Eastman, he began a career as a Western Union bicycle messenger and went on to become a bicycle-shop owner. As the internal-combustion engines became move available, his interest turned to motorcycles. In 1902 he began manufacturing motorcycles first building a single-cylinder engine. The carburetor was built out of a tomato soup can and a gauze screen to pull the gasoline up by capillary action.
In 1903, he set a motorcycle land speed record of 64 miles per hour for one mile. Then on January 24, 1907, Curtiss set an unofficial world record of 136.36 miles per hour, on a 40 horsepower V-8 powered motorcycle he designed and constructed in Ormond Beach, Florida. That record wasn’t broken until 1930.
Regarded as “the greatest motor expert in the country” by Alexander Graham Bell, he invited him to join his Aerial Experiment Association (“AEA”) to develop a suitable engine for heavier-than-air flight experiments. Out of the four aircraft produced by AEA, Curtiss was responsible for their third aircraft named “Aerodrome #3” and also known as the “June Bug.” The first officially witnessed flight in North America was made by Curtiss on July 4, 1908, flying 5,080 feet during a public event. With AEA disbanded in 1909, he formed his own company “Herring-Curtiss” in association with Augustus Herring.
From 1910 to 1911, Curtis developed several aircraft for the U. S. Navy and also established a winter encampment in San Diego to teach Army and Naval personnel to fly. He trained Lt. Theodore Ellyson, who became U. S. Naval Aviator #1 and three other Army officers in the first military aviation school. This earned him the title “The Father of Naval Aviation.”
With peacetime, came the end to wartime contract and in September 1920, the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company underwent a financial reorganization. After cashing out his stock in the company for $32 million he retired to Florida.
During his retirement, he founded 18 corporations and severed on civic commissions and donated extensive land and water rights. He co-developed the city of Hialeah with James Bright and developed the cities of Opa-Locka and Miami Springs.
Frequent hunting trips in the Florida Everglades brought on one final invention, the Adams Motor “
While in a lawsuit with his former partner Augustus Herring over the merger of Wright Aeronautical Corporation and Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company, he suffered an attack of appendicitis. He died on July 23, 1930, in Buffalo, New York from complications due to the appendectomy.
1926 Miami hurricane and the 21st century
During the 1926 Miami hurricane in September, many of the original Moorish-style buildings were destroyed. Also, the hurricane put an end to Florida’s land boom. When Curtiss died, his dream of Opa-Locka died with him.
With World War II, much of Opa-Locka was used for large-scale military aviation. The airport became a Naval aviation and airstrip mooring base. The Navy used many of the original buildings and parks for various needs. Multiple apartments and other buildings were built with the influx of military personnel. None were in keeping with the original theme. In 1963 when the airbase was decommissioned, Opa-Locka’s economy became depressed.
Bernhardt E. Muller returned to Opa-Locka for the first time since the 1920s in 1959 and found the city dreams in ruins. He addressed the city’s Chamber of Commerce trying to convenience them to prevent Opa-Locka from becoming a “meaningless jumble of unrelated buildings, painted in hideous colors” and to continue with Curtiss’ dream. Wanting to inspire them, he only offended the local officials.
With the 21st century came a city government rife with corruption that brought investigations starting in 2013 a raid on city hall in 2016 from the FBI. Opa-Locka has been declared one of the most dangerous cities in the nation with some of the highest violent crime rates per capita. It has also been described as being “mired in crime and sinking fast.” As of 2019, the city is still in a state of financial emergency.
The administration building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and the designation included the nineteen surviving Moorish Revival style building on March 22, 1982. The renovation had started, but due to lack of funds, it was put on indefinite hold.
Photography credit: Sandra Cohen-Rose and Colin Rose/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)