Not a lot about Opa-Locka makes sense. It’s a Southern town with a Native American name (shortened from the Seminole phrase ‘Opa-tisha-wocka-locka’… try saying that three times fast) and a Moorish, One Thousand and One Nights theme that manifests in everything from the pastel city hall, adorned with pink domes and golden minarets, to the street names, which include Ali Baba Avenue and Sesame Street. I really can’t make this stuff up.
So how did this small town in a Florida swamp end up with its distinctive ‘Arabian Nights’ flair? It was designed that way from its inception. The town’s Founding Father was eccentric aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, a motorcycle racer who made the first officially witnessed flight in North America. Curtiss, eager to capitalize on the era’s land boom in Florida, also founded Miami Springs, Florida with a New Mexican Pueblo Revival theme.
But Opa-Locka remains the more strange of the two towns. Curtiss commissioned Nebraska-born, New York-based architect Bernhardt Emil Muller to make his exotic fantasy town a reality. Muller had traveled Europe extensively and studied in Paris, but neither of the two men had even seen this style of architecture in its original form. Muller ended up walking away from the project, and for the rest of their lives, the two both claim to have concocted the Moorish theme.
Originally, 100 Moorish buildings, loaded with an unrealistically (at least, unrealistic if they were trying to be accurate to true Moorish architecture) large amount of minarets, domes, keyhole arches, and other details, were constructed. At least 20 of the original Moorish buildings still remain, which is kind of a miracle considering that a hurricane hit the area less than a year after the town opened, and the Great Depression started a few years later. You can see homes, the town hall, the old fire station, the police station, the Harry Hurt Building, the Seaboard Air Line Railway Station, and more done up in the kitschy style.
Despite the fact that it was billed as an exotic fantasy land (seriously, the gaudy annual Arabian Nights parade the town held in its early years is a great example of what the town wanted to be), Opa-Locka hit hard times after the WWII-era aviation center that employed many in the town closed. Boring, utilitarian buildings and crime flourished in the 80s and 90s, and recent bankruptcy and government corruption has kept the town from fully realizing its goal of an arts-fueled renaissance. Despite the town’s struggles, they still have their funky past and distinctive architecture, and are well poised for a revival. In technical terms, I’d say they’re about one magic lamp rub away from a renaissance.
Here’s a map to a few of the Moorish Revival government buildings around town.