Changing Course: Robert Murray Little Reimagined UM’s Architecture

Circumstances beyond his control radically altered George Merrick’s design scheme for the fledgling University of Miami campus, resulting in transformative expressions of Tropical Modernist architecture.

The ambitious 1926 plan by Phineas Paist and Denman Fink for an institute of higher learning in Coral Gables was consistent with the city founder’s vision of a grand Spanish Renaissance-style academia — until fate intervened in the form of a massive land bust and a devastating hurricane that halted all new construction.

The proposed university was not immune to such disruptions, and struggled financially until seeking bankruptcy protection in 1932. During this time, the inaugural students wandered from one classroom to another on a campus that was, at best, undefined. Construction of the first building — now known as the Merrick Building — was only half-completed for over two decades while World War II raged across the globe.

At war’s end, the university, under the leadership of school president Bowman Foster Ashe, hired a new team of prominent architects to re-imagine Paist and Fink’s concept, using contemporary design standards. Among the architects chosen to carry out the administration’s massive plan was Robert Murray Little, who, together with Dr. Ashe and team members Robert Law Weed and Marion Manley, developed postwar design solutions that reverberate even today.

The Lowe Art Gallery at the University of Miami, later named as the Lowe Art Museum in 1968 (then and now).

In 1950, Little designed the International Style Merrick Classroom Building (seen in the featured image at the top, then and now) that housed Miami’s first professional exhibition space — the so-called “University Art Gallery.” But by 1952, a separate building had arisen under a new name: the Lowe Art Gallery (also designed by Little) that showcased significant examples of Asian, Ancient American, and African art. This new gallery, underwritten by prominent art philanthropists Joseph and Emily Lowe, continued to evolve until, in 1968, it was officially identified as the Lowe Art Museum, which was recognized in 1972 Fas the first museum in Miami-Dade County to be professionally accredited by the American Alliance of Museums.

It’s apparent that from the beginning the gallery concept was envisioned as a breakthrough, both educationally and architecturally. Far removed from the university’s Mediterranean Revival roots, the art gallery’s architect fully embraced the post-WWII design aesthetic. Joining the ranks of such celebrated mid-century area architects as Alfred Browning Parker, Russell T. Pancoast, and Morris Lapidus, Robert Murray Little created a fusion of Modernism and the International Style, firmly planting his elegant buildings under the sheltering palms of sub-tropical Coral Gables.

RELATED: The Lapidus Legacy: Master of MiMo Architecture

Subsequent donations of major collections (as well as an acclaimed 1991 expansion by Charles Harrison Pawley) have added to the Lowe Museum’s prominence within the international art community. Robert Murray Little and the Lowe Art Museum itself have only grown in stature over the intervening decades.

This year, the Coral Gables Community Foundation will honor the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum with the 2023 Landmark Award at its annual gala benefit. The Foundation’s Landmark Award is bestowed upon an institution that is beloved in Coral Gables. According to the Foundation, “The Lowe Art Museum brings world-class exhibits to the community and is a treasure of the City Beautiful cultural landscape.”

UM Architect Robert Murray Little

Story written by Karelia Martinez Carbonell, the president of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables, and Bruce Fitzgerald. Photographs by Vicki Cerda and vintage photos courtesy of Karelia Martinez Carbonell.