When Lewis Rosenstiel made his gift to the University of Miami for the Marine Science institute, a significant portion was designated for the construction of a new building. The Trustees of the University were hesitant to approve any such project because it did not include funds for operation or maintenance. They were afraid it might become an unfunded liability. Also, new buildings always cost more than they were supposed to. Neither Walton Smith nor Warren Wooster had been able to convince them otherwise.
I had no idea how to accomplish this goal either, but I knew that the endowment was not growing as fast as construction costs were rising. A few weeks after I became Interim Dean, I attended a meeting of the JOIDES Executive Committee in my new role. The meeting was at Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory on the Palisades of the Hudson, just north of New York City. It occurred to me that perhaps someone I had met years before, an architect who seemed to know how to get things done, might be able to give me some advice. I called Max Abramovitz at his Manhattan office and asked it he might have an hour or so to talk with me after our meeting at Lamont was over. I briefly explained my problem. “Of course, come on in to the city”. I changed my flight back to Miami to evening.
Now I need to digress and tell you how I had come to know Max. In the spring of 1962, when I was an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois in Urbana, I was given an unusual duty. Each year the University hosted a state-wide high-school science fair. I was asked to be the University’s organizer for the fair to be held in the spring of 1963. It was going to be held in a new building, the Assembly Hall which was still under construction. The fair would be held just as the construction was completed.
The Assembly Hall resembles a flying saucer that has just landed. Max Abramovitz was its architect, Gerry Schiff was in charge of the design, and Bill Poston was the resident architect on site overseeing construction. I had already met Bill because I had gone out to see the building when construction was just betting underway. We had run into each other at the site, and he explained the unique way in which this building, with the largest open interior space at the time was being constructed. I had always had a great interest in architecture and was fascinated by the sheer audacity of this project.
The building is circular, 400 feet in diameter with no internal supports for a dome 128 feet above the center floor. A special horizontal-wheeled tractor wound 614 miles of 1/5” steel wire around the edge of the dome’s, circling it 2,467 times gradually squeezing it inward and upwards, so that the 800,000 square feet of wooden scaffolding that had supported the concrete when it was poured could removed. The interior space has 16,000 permanent seats. It is surrounded by a quarter mile circular concourse with 24 bridges lit by 24 skylights. The concourse was to be the site of the science fair.
Bill and I had common interests in music, opera, and good food, and made trips to Chicago together to attend the Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony. Now Bill and I worked out plans to ensure that there would be enough electrical outlets, water, and all the other special things required by the science fair. Things were still being installed the night before the students arrived. The fair, in its new venue, was a great success. Max had come out. After the fair closed we celebrated at my tiny apartment with champagne and good wine.
Then a few years later, Max built the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois. It is a wonderful complex with a concert hall with excellent acoustics. It was based on studies his firm had made of the great concert halls in Europe as they were designing Philharmonic Hall for Lincoln Center in New York. The New York hall had to be much larger than their optimum designs, and could not incorporate wood, and its acoustics were initially not as good as had been hoped. The Krannert was the real thing. I would see Max from time to time as the construction proceeded and we enjoyed getting to know each other. The Krannert Center opened in the spring of 1969, when I was officially in Miami, but I returned for the occasion.
When I called him in 1976 I didn’t know whether he would even remember me. When we met he listened carefully to my problem, told me it was not unique, and offered to come down to Miami to have a look.
A couple of weeks later I picked him up at the Miami airport, took him out to the School. He walked around the ‘campus’ and through all the buildings. As we walked through Marine Geology and Geophysics he smiled: “I hope the University idn’t pay the architect the full fee for this one. I designed this for the Canal Zone Authority in Panama and the plans are available from the US Government Printing Office for $ 5.00”. His reaction overall: “It looks like these buildings were dropped out of a passing airplane”. The next day we got serious. Max told me “This is hopeless, you need more space”. We visited the Seaquarium next door, just to see if there was any unused space there, none. Then Max asked about the very large public parking lot in front of our School. It was for fishermen using the catwalks along the bridge to Key Biscayne. It had several hundred parking spaces and there were about four cars parked there. “You need this piece of land”. We went back to my office, and met with my management team. “First you need that get that parking lot out front from the county. You need it before you can do any new building project. Have someone start taking pictures of it each day to document how many cars use it. That building with the running seawater system and seawater tank on top is going to become unsafe as the corrosion of the reinforcing rods in the concrete proceeds. To free up the money from the trustees you will need to show how you will pay for operations and maintenance not only of a new building, but of the ones you already have. You need to know how your overhead income will be generated. You need to have at least a five year plan for faculty replacements and hires. You need to know whether you are overtaxing some of your funding sources and ignoring other possibilities”.
Max made it clear we were not ready proceeding with a new building. First we needed a detailed analysis of what space was needed—how much, and what kind. We needed a Planning Program that could formalize our needs. “This is a great opportunity, I hope I cen be involved”.
We certainly had our work cut out for us. We had just experienced what Max’s understudy, Gerry Schiff, called the “Max Factor”.
Before he left Max took me aside. “When you took on the job as Dean, you were given a list of your duties, a job description. If you do what is in your job description this new building will never be built. You need to delegate everything in your job description and make this your real job”. And then he went on to tell me the same things about delegation of authority that my father had told me. “And another thing. Do you know the story of Fillipo Brunelleschi and the dome on the Cathedral in Florence?” “No”. “Read Vasari’s account. Everything that happened to Brunelleschi is going to happen to you”.
The book is Giorgio Vasari’s Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, published in 1550. The entry is for Filippo di ser Brunelesco. At the beginning of the 15th century the Cathedral of Florence had been largely finished, but the crossing, the intersection of the nave and transepts was still open to the sky. It was to be roofed over by a dome. There was a problem. The dome was to be octagonal, starting 52 m (171 ft) above the floor and spanning 44 m (144 ft) without the use of flying buttresses seen in gothic cathedrals. There was a problem. A dome of that size had not been built since126 AD, in Rome; the Pantheon. Slightly smaller, and much closer to the floor, its dome is Roman concrete. It was poured on wooden scaffolding that was later removed. There were not enough large trees in Tuscany to build the sturdy scaffolding required to use the same technique in Florence. And anyway, no one was quite sure just how the Romans had done it. The Florence story has all the elements of innovative modern construction. Insider trading; the low bid coming from a contractor who didn’t know how to do it but got paid anyway; the endless questioning of Brunelleschi’s innovative solution, and the endless problems of payment. Anyone who builds a building with public funds or with government overseers should be familiar with the story.
My entire management group thought Max was great. But the idea that we might be able to engage a well known New York architect seemed out of the question. Everything the University of Miami had built had been done by local architects, most with ties to the Board of Trustees.
I went over to the Coral Gables campus to see the person in charge of such matters, Oliver Bonnert. I told him about Max’s visit, and the need to acquire more space and to develop a detailed Planning Program. He was startled, I had certainly violated University protocol in such matters, but he was certainty intrigued that an architect would identify the need for additional space as the initial goal. Miami architects built buildings; they didn’t tell you why you couldn’t build a building.
I had already broken ground with the University trustees on the salary matter, and in December 1976 I made my request to hire Max to develop a Planning Program that would justify a request to the county for land. I found a friend among the trustees, a lawyer who was impressed with both the salary adjustment and planning arguments. He asked the hardest questions, and became my strongest supporter.
The firm Harrison, Abramovitz and Kingsland was hired to do the Planning Program. Gerry Schiff was their man on the spot. He interviewed literally everyone in the School to determine their needs and gather ideas. Gerry realized that in some of the buildings corridors took up a third of the space. Since no outsiders used the corridors, they were unnecessary; by removing the walls the hallway space could be incorporated into the laboratories, giving us some needed space right away. While all this was proceeding something new happened that changed everything.
Eric Kraus, our Chair of Atmospheric Sciences had been exploring the possibility of forming a joint Institute with NOAA. It was to be on the lines of the University of Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). Eric’s proposed new organization would the Cooperative Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Science (CIMAS). The School’s major contribution would be space to house the new Institute and administrative support. It wasn’t that much space, just offices and meeting rooms for 7 faculty, 6 post-doctorates/graduate students, and their administrative support; a little over 2,000 square feet. It was a small job and it had to fit into a small space and it also needed to be adjacent to the Marine Science Center where the physical oceanographers were located. Gerry identified a small parking lot at the end of the Marine Science Center as a possible site. I called Max to see if he might be interested in such a small project. He was.
Ollie Bonnert agreed that Max’s firm could be among those competing for the CIMAS building design. When the presentations were made Harrison, Abramovitz and Kingsland hit a home run, coming in with ideas much more original than the others. It was a small project after all, and the Trustees approved. When the design was complete, and the documents sent out to possible contractors for bids. They came in under the estimates. The Trustees didn’t know what to think; bids were always over and had to be negotiated down. Max later explained to Ollie Bonnert how this had been done. His firm had hired one of the best contractors in Miami to cost out the project; but that carried the stipulation that they could not bid on the contract. Everything, down to the kinds of screws to be used had been in the bid document. The CIMAS project was built under budget and completed ahead of time.
In the meantime we had gotten permission to have Max’s firm give us a general design form a new building to be built mostly on the county’s parking lot in front of the School. Max sent Gerry Schiff around to each of the major oceanographic institutions in the US to look at buildings they had recently built and to interview faculty to learn what was good and what was bad about them. Working from the Planning Program a preliminary design was drawn up, in a large format brochure that could be distributed to all the interested parties, including the Dade County Commissioners. I think we paid about $25,000 for a beautiful large model to be made. We also received a grant of planning funds from another foundation, but with the stipulation that they would expire after a year if the project were not moving forward. Then we had the County Commissioners over to the School for a visit and a serious discussion about that parking lot. Of course they were non-committal. Waterfront property in Miami is very valuable.
I waited to hear that our proposal for acquisition of the land was on the agenda of the County Commission. A few months went by. I called Max and told him nothing was happening. He told me “You need to find out who makes up the agenda for the County Commission. Then you need to contact him and ask for an appointment, explaining you have something to show him. And then give him a presentation and ask him to put you on the agenda”.
I did just that, I gave the official our big brochure and showed him our plans. Before I was through with my presentation he said “This should be on the Commission’s agenda”. I told him about the planning funds that would expire. “Its got to be on the agenda right away”.
A couple of weeks later Warren Wisby and I attended the Commission meeting where our proposal would come up. The Commissioners spent most of the morning arguing about a new lock on a door that would cost $250. And a traffic light. They broke for lunch.
After lunch the first item: Transfer of 1.6 acres of County Land on Virginia Key to the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School; estimated value $ 2.5 million. Any objections? Hearing none, Approved.