Soaring with Dinner Key Seaplanes

August 17th, 2020

The sky’s the limit in this edition of Learning from Miami, as we embark on an aviation adventure to Dinner Key.

Dinner Key is a human-made parcel of land located in Coconut Grove created in 1917 by the United States Navy. At the time, it was the second largest naval base in America and was used primarily to train seaplane pilots. One year after the end of World War I, the Navy relocated to Chapman Airfield in South Miami. After the military departed the seaplane base, it was used by non-scheduled commercial pilots. Then in 1926, disaster struck as the Dinner Key seaport was demolished by a hurricane.

In 1930, a new commercial airline known as Pan American Airways took an interest in the former naval base. Pan Am purchased the New York-Rio-Buenos Aires Line which flew twin-engine Commodore flying boats from Miami to Buenos Aires. On December 1, 1930, Pan Am flew its first maiden voyage from Dinner Key to Buenos Aries. Famous aviator Charles Lindbergh worked for the airline as a technical advisor and surveyed many of their first flight routes.

Seaplanes were a necessity because of the lack of airports along the South American flight route. Pan American’s flying clipper ships made travel between the United States and Latin America more accessible. In 1931, the airline debuted its first airplane hangar at the repurposed military base.

Pan Am airport terminal, with the rotating globe, Dinner Key. Photo Courtesy: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Pan Am oversaw a mass expansion of Dinner Key including a makeshift passenger terminal crafted from a houseboat brought in by tugboats from Cuba.  Then, in 1933, work began on a new terminal building that would open in March, 1934. This Streamline Moderne style building was designed by architectural firm Delano and Aldrich and included better passenger facilities as well as a large rotating globe, which would become its own tourist attraction. Other improvements included dredging a 700-foot-wide channel that stretched out for a mile in order to allow ample space for seaplanes to land and take off. Several additional hangars were also built during the expansion. In 1938, all upgrades of the Pan American seaport were completed and in operation.

World War II began a year later, and Dinner Key would again serve as a military base for the U.S. Navy. During the war, Pan Am continued its passenger service for overseas travelers.

After World War II, the demand for seaplanes began to decline. Advances in aviation technology during the war and more runways being built in Latin America led to the demise of the seaplane airport. Pan American’s final flight to Dinner Key took place August 9, 1945. The City of Miami purchased the land and the building from Pan Am in 1946 and converted the terminal into City Hall in 1954. In 1974, City Hall was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.

In 2003, City Hall was renovated by architect Richard Heisenbottle. Workers removed plaster and acoustic tiles and discovered the former terminal’s original murals. Restoration efforts raised the city’s budget from $600,000 to $1.6 million.

Recently, two of Pan American’s former seaplane hangars were renovated into a mixed use retail space called Regatta Harbour. A third hangar is already in use as a Fresh Market. The project is expected to be completed sometime in 2020.

-Ursa Gil


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