Hilario Candela.jpeg

Gazing, maybe for hours, at the architectural masterpiece known as Miami Marine Stadium, one could only help but wonder: How did they do it?

The man behind the Latin influence of the uniquely shaped structure – which not only was the site for powerboat races, boxing matches, concerts and the backdrop for Elvis’ 1967 movie “Clambake” – has passed away, not ever seeing the fruits of a renovation project still in discussions after 14 years.

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Hilario F. Candela, a Cuban-born emigrant who refined his architectural skills — genius, some say — at colleges in Cuba and the U.S., died Tuesday night at Miami’s Mercy Hospital from complications of the COVID-19 virus, his son stated. He was 87.

“Very sad news. What a shame that he will not have the opportunity to see his iconic Miami Marine Stadium returned to its grandeur,” said Coconut Grove resident Harry Gottlieb. “I’m just a person who appreciated the work he did.”

He wasn't the only one. The stadium opened in 1963 — Candela designed it when he was just 28 — to fanfare, fireworks and a full crowd. Strangely, the man who designed it was not in the seats that night.

Don Worth, a Miami Beach resident and co-founder of the advocacy group known as Restore Marine Stadium, recalled having lunch with Candela and the chief engineer of the project, Jack Meyer, and looking at a rendering of the opening night.

“I asked Hilario, ‘Wow, how did it feel to be in that stadium that night?’ He said, ‘I couldn’t get in, I didn’t have a ticket.’ Jack Meyer, either,” Worth said. “What he did was he drove around the end of the basin and watched from the side. I told him, ‘Next time we open, you’ll be in the stands.’ “

Unfortunately, that time has passed.

“He left us with a marvelous building, recognized around the world, and one with enormous potential,” Worth said. “It’s a monument, but it’s not just enough to be a monument. The City of Miami needs to know (how it can be beneficial from a financial standpoint).

“In terms of advocacy, we’re going to keep pushing with broad-based support ... We started in January of 2008 and it’s been 14 years — a long, hard battle — but on the other hand, I’m optimistic ... I think we’re closer than ever.”

This past September, Candela graced Commissioner Raquel Regalado’s all-Spanish virtual meeting, entitled “The Most Cuban Building in Miami. From Havana to Miami: The Architectural & Cultural Significance of Miami Marine Stadium.”

“We weren’t sure he was going to show up,” said Worth, who jokingly confesses now that he didn’t really understand much of what was being said in Spanish. “He sure seemed vibrant that night. Hilario was the guiding light of the whole restoration.”

As a 28-year-old immigrant from Cuba, he designed the 6,566-seat stadium that has survived hurricanes, heat, humidity and even a hasty demolition decision after Hurricane Andrew, when further review showed the stadium to be structurally sound – even after it was declared unsafe under the Miami-Dade County building code.

“He and Jack were like the ‘Odd Couple’ — a couple of artists. Jack, a straight-laced Southern gentleman from North Carolina, and Hilario, a young guy who attended the university in Havana and Georgia Tech, which sort of typifies the dynamic of (much of the Miami population),” Worth said.

Meyer also was one of the early Commodores at the famed Biscayne Bay Yacht Club, founded by Ralph Middleton Munroe, hence the official name of the stadium — Ralph Middleton Munroe Miami Marine Stadium.

At Commissioner Regalado's meeting in September, Candela was adamant about preventing “pausas,” too many stoppages in the discussions to renovate.

“This pausa is a little longer than what it should be and I think there should be no more pausing,” he said. “It needs to stop, and reality starts. The stadium is weary of pauses. The stadium wants to come back in an extraordinary art form.”

Due to its unique design, its prime location off Rickenbacker Causeway and the panoramic views of mainland Miami it offers, the World Monuments Fund jumped on board in 2008 (with the local Friends of MIami Marine Stadium) – putting it in the same breath as other magnificent structures to restore and preserve, such as Machu Picchu in Peru and the Taj Mahal in India.

A year later, it was named to the National Trust for Historic Preservation list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

Came in under budget

When the stadium was constructed, costs came in at about $1 million — under budget, Candela said — and there was a $900,000 charge to dredge the basin, which he also designed. The 326-foot-long stadium structure — built on land donated by the prominent Matheson family — has eight big, slanted columns and a cantilevered fold-plate roof that defies its age.

“I’ve always loved Miami,” said Candela, also responsible for influencing the design of many structures in Miami-Dade County, including Miami Dade College’s North and Kendall campuses. “That stadium (and the location) was like a dream, the most important area there for (views of) water and land — very few places in the world where a place like that existed.

“We thought of that a lot before we dreamed ... the ocean, the small rippling waves, the brilliance of the water, the reflection of the water ... The roof is like a replica of the reflection of the water, and the sound of the water against that roof is a remembrance. It was a dream, but you had to proceed with caution ... we had carpenters on the roof who had experience with woodworking (craftsmanship) on the ships in Miami,” he said.

Commissioner Regalado said Friday she would love to see the stadium again rise to its prominence.

“Hilario was an inspiration to many of us who grew up in Miami, as well as to our parents who grew up in Cuba,” she said. “The best thing we can do to preserve his legacy is simply to bring the Miami Marine Stadium back to its full glory for a new generation of Miamians who’ve never had the pleasure to directly experience his visionary aesthetic.”

Like the Chrysler Building in New York, the Sydney Opera House in Australia or the Eiffel Tower in Paris, Miami Marine Stadium is certainly an important landmark for Miami.

After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Worth said, “people in the city (of Miami) wanted to demolish it for other commercial uses because they believed it was not financially successful. But I want to talk about how it can be financially successful.”

Worth will get that chance Tuesday evening at a 5:30 p.m. meeting at the City Commission Chambers, where he will address the Virginia Key Advisory Board to discuss what a renovated stadium could mean for Miami, He will talk about how famed historic preservation architect Richard Heisenbottle plans to restore the site, where Jimmy Buffett, The Beach Boys and Queen once performed.

Heisenbottle, whose firm is located in Coral Gables, told the Miami Herald he expects the project to finally go out for construction bids in a few months, after years of delays.

“Hilario was a class act in the way he ran his business and a class act in his life as an architect,” said Heisenbottle, who hopes to oversee the $45 million restoration project.

Candela, at the September meeting, was anxious.

“The voice of Miami Marine Stadium (has) emerged and I’m here for the city,” he said.

Now, the restoration project — if approved — will be in his memory.

Candela is survived by his wife, Eva; children Cecilia, Maurice, Mark and Hilary; and 15 grandchildren. Plans for services are pending.

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