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A few nights before punching his way to his first heavyweight championship, and to a legendary career, Cassius Clay reigned supreme in a small nightclub off a busy thoroughfare in segregated Miami. Framed by golden draperies, the house band played while a few couples danced.
Over the din of jazz and clinking glasses, the 22-year-old fighter kept listeners in stitches with outrageous banter about how he planned to "whoop" Sonny Liston.
"He told us we could bet our houses on that," said bandleader Charlie Austin, 65, who still chuckles at that memory. "Nobody believed him, of course. Dammit."
In those days, Clay was a regular presence at Hampton House Motel in Brownsville, along with just about any other black celebrity you could think of, during a time when neither money nor fame was enough to secure them a room at most hotels in town. In the '60s and '70s, when hospitals and schools, beaches and graveyards separated blacks from whites, the motel and its nightclub drew a devoted crowd of middle-class blacks, celebrities and white jazz fans.
Offering upscale amenities such as maitre d' service, valet parking and a 24-hour restaurant, it became a meeting place for luminaries such as Sam Cooke and Berry Gordy, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X -- and thus a touchstone of African-American life in South Florida. "The Hampton House stands as a symbol of the time when blacks were limited in every phase of life,'' said Dorothy Fields, the founder and chief historian of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida. "In its day, the Hampton House was the place to be. There was a community and a family [among blacks] then that has not existed since."
Today the motel has become a bitter symbol of urban blight. Responding to complaints, the Miami-Dade County building department recently cited the crumbling concrete hulk as an unsafe structure, paving the way for it to be torn down.
Weeds as tall as the building itself choke the courtyard, where old photos show long-legged beauties lounging by the pool. Sunlight streams through a gaping hole in the roof to a debris-cluttered floor two stories below. Feral cats prowl the long-abandoned premises, which sit in a struggling neighborhood of crumbling sidewalks, aging homes and vacant lots near State Route 112.
Residents of an adjoining 144-unit apartment complex, originally built as part of the motel, complain of rodents, gaping holes in the ceiling and drug dealing. Yet though it has been closed for 28 years, a few still speak reverently of the motel that once anchored the neighborhood.
"It's a travesty,'' said Keith Brooks, 44, a bus operator who lives in the apartments. He's heard talk of the motel all his life. "It's unbelievable that a place with such a rich history has deteriorated to where it is now."
Brooks cared so much about the decrepit motel that earlier this month he asked the Miami-Dade County Historic Preservation Board to declare it a landmark -- triggering the agency to begin researching its past. Landmark designation would protect it from demolition and open the door to tax abatement and redevelopment grants. But the property, erected in 1955, must first clear major hurdles. First off, it's too young to automatically be considered historic.
"After World War II there was an explosion of building in South Florida,'' said Christopher Eck, director of the county's Historic Preservation district. "Most of our focus has been to preserve buildings that are older than that. It's not out of the question, but it is a significant hurdle to overcome.''
Of 100 properties designated "historic" by the county board since 1998, only one -- Harry Troeger's 1949 South Dade house built of Dade County pine and coral rock -- was less than 50 years old. Most date from the 1920s or earlier.
Current Hampton House owner Simon Trojecki said he had once considered opening a new motel on the site with a plaque to acknowledge the property's past, but has since shelved his plans to focus on other projects.
"The history fascinates me,'' said Trojecki, who also owns Century Cab company in Miami. "But there are no concrete plans. I'm not even working on it now because I'm busy with other things. I don't have the time.''
Trojecki faces an order from the county to repair it or tear it down. A man who staffs a rental agency operating at a small office on the motel premises said it bluntly:
"Take a good look now,'' rental agent Henry Wade told a visitor recently. "Soon it will be gone."
Ambitious development in 1955
It opened in 1955 as the Booker Terrace Motel and Apartments, an ambitious development that included the apartments, restaurant, a nightclub and the 50-room motel. It featured a courtyard pool screened by a Mediterranean-style concrete wall, a high-ceilinged lobby with terrazzo floors, and curvy wrought iron railings. The complex occupied a prominent location on Northwest 27th Avenue in the heart of Brownsville -- then a bustling, predominantly black middle-class subdivision of teachers, longshoremen and airport workers.
"Architecturally, it doesn't compare to the hotels that were being built on Miami Beach at that time,'' said Nathaniel Belcher, professor of architecture at Florida International University. "But in the context of the buildings in the black community, it stood out. It was a modern building that was clearly intended to be a destination."
When the original builder failed to turn a profit, the motel's operation was taken over by Harry and Florence Markowitz -- developers who owned the land. The married couple, who were Jewish, owned several rental properties throughout Liberty City and north Miami Dade but began to devote much of their time to shoring up their fledgling motel business.
"They were there all the time," said Jerry Markowitz, 52, a bankruptcy lawyer who is one of the couple's surviving sons. "It was something they put a lot of energy into."
Their focus was to offer a top-notch facility in the heart of the black area, mostly because it made good business sense, said their son.
They hired a flamboyant maitre d', Charles Martin, who dressed in a gold-lame tuxedo jacket and seated lounge patrons at tables sheathed in white linen. They booked a jazz band into the lounge at a time when competitors featured rhythm-and-blues acts that appealed to younger crowds. And they made sure the dress code -- jackets for men, dress shoes for women -- was strictly followed.
"You couldn't walk into the Hampton House looking any kind of way,'' said former patron David Miller, 67, who started hanging out there in his 30s after returning from military service in World War II. "You had to be dressed. There wasn't anything else like that for blacks. When they opened that place, it was like a gold mine to us."
By the mid-1960s, the motel was nearly always full and its nightclub packed with workers and a Who's Who of entertainers.
House band singer Ricky Thomas gloats that Frank Sinatra Jr. once gushed to a crowded room that Thomas was the best blues singer he ever heard. Drummer David Nuby remembers how comedian Flip Wilson, an upstart looking for a break, rapped on his motel room door, eager to try out new jokes.
"He wanted us to tell him if the jokes were funny before he used them onstage,'' said Nuby, who today owns a septic tank business in Dania Beach. "He was a natural -- took everyday things and cracked jokes about them. He was very funny.''
Members of the house band often got to play with some of the top black musicians in the country who often ended up staying -- and giving impromptu late-night performances. White entertainers such as Sinatra Jr. and comedian Milton Berle also joined their black colleagues at the nightclub, although they usually stayed at the hotels in Miami Beach, said Nuby.
Saxophonist John McMinn remembers sneaking into the club as a teenager, hanging around the bandstand as Cab Calloway chatted with the house band. On other occasions, the house band allowed him to sit in.
"Being there was like fuel for my artistry,'' said McMinn, 48, who went on to perform professionally in Europe and now teaches music at Charles Drew Elementary School. "It just filled me with creativity.
"It's something that is lacking for the kids today,'' he said. "They don't have a venue to go by and test their skills like I did."
By 1970, the motel's prominence had begun to fade.
The advent of integration -- which followed a national trend of protests, court battles and changing social attitudes -- cut into the motel's business, said Miami Times publisher Garth Reeves, who led an early legal battle to desegregate Miami's public golf courses.
"People had other choices,'' he said, including increased competition from other jazz clubs.
Richard Strachan, a pianist who led a quartet in the club's final days, said the Markowitzes' attitude about the motel soured after a dispute with a band member who confronted the owners over improvements he thought the hotel needed.
As bandleader, Strachan normally handled negotiations with the Markowitzes. However, on the night in question, he had a scheduling conflict and sent another, more short-tempered band member to discuss the improvements.
"He was very aggressive with them,'' said Strachan, who regrets the episode because it cost him his favorite venue to play. "It was the black-power period by then. He told them if they didn't want to support the black community they could get the hell out. The Markowitzes didn't like that."
Closed down in 1972
The Hampton House Motel closed in 1972. A group of black investors pooled their money to buy it, but that effort fizzled, said Reeves.
Today, Hampton House is the last of those segregation-era hotels for blacks still standing. Others, like the Sir John Hotel and Mary Elizabeth Hotels in Overtown, have either been replaced with new buildings or are empty lots. In Fort Lauderdale, the Hill Hotel, where performers like Lionel Hampton and Louis Armstrong once stayed, was torn down and replaced with a U.S. Post Office on Northwest Seventh Avenue and Fifth Street.
In October, Hollywood film director Michael Mann, who made 1999's The Insider, scouted the Hampton House for a movie he is making about the life of Muhammad Ali. Just as he had boasted, the young fighter defeated Sonny Liston and celebrated afterward at Hampton House.
But Mann decided it was too much work to restore the Hampton House for the film. They are considering using another hotel faade instead.
"We would have loved to use it, but it was too far gone,'' said movie scout Alejo Menendez, who joined Mann.
Brooks and others would like to see the building restored. For that to happen, county staff now researching the building must recommend to the 13-member preservation board that it merits saving. If the board agrees, it will order an exhaustive study, including architectural surveys and maps -- and hold a public hearing to discuss and vote on the matter. The process can take up to a year.
"I think there is an argument to be made for it, but we want to look at it more closely first,'' said Rick Ferrer, the historian who would likely write the study.
But others have already made their peace with the loss of Hampton House.
Take Richard Thomas, a wavy-haired, gravelly voiced blues singer who once played to crowds in the lounge, who thinks the motel might better be left to memory.
On a recent visit to the Hampton House, former bandmates helped Thomas, who is legally blind, step over weeds and discarded plastic containers inside the abandoned complex. He listened quietly as they whispered comments like "it's really gone down" and "unbelievable."
When asked what he thought of it all, Thomas answered stoically:
"I don't have any feeling for it. It's just a memory now,'' he said.
He paused for a moment before being led back to his car.
"Yep. Another one bit the dust."
Jody A. Benjamin can be reached at 954-356-4530 or email@example.com.
Copyright 2001, SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.