Opinion: Celebrating Marion Manley

Brett Gillis

Dr. Gillis is vice president of the Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables (HPACG)

Marion Isadore Manley (1893-1984) was born in Junction City, Kansas.  She earned a Bachelor of Science in Architecture from the University of Illinois in 1917 and spent a summer doing post-graduate design work at M.I.T.  Nevertheless, her future would not be in the Midwest.  After all, the name “Marion” is of French derivation and means “star of the sea.”

After graduation, Miss Manley toured French Canada and was drawn to Miami, a small seaside city on America’s “final frontier” with about the same population as Key West at the time.  She accepted a position as draftswoman for Walter DeGarmo, Miami’s first major architect that was professionally trained.  DeGarmo and Manley enjoyed tremendous success during the boom years of the 1920s, and Manley set off to open her own architectural practice.  By 1925, she was hired to design elegant homes for the new developments of Morningside and Miami Shores.  She was Miami’s first female architect (Marion Manley)

By 1926, the boom was dwindling, and after the great hurricane and stock market crash of 1929, the boom had bust.  Work was scarce, and Manley stayed on at the home of Marjory Stoneman Douglas during these years.  From 1929 to 1933, she was senior designer for the great classicist Phineas Paist.  By the mid 1930s, there was an uptick in construction and real estate, and Manley once again opened her own office.

Manley was certainly back in the fray in the Gables by 1938, for artist-designer Denman Fink and his wife Betsy had selected her as the architect of record for their one-of-a-kind studio-villa (Coral Gables Permit #5735).  This was a major commission at the time as Denman Fink was well known in Coral Gables (George Merrick, Denman Fink, George Fink, and Frank Button were the original members of Merrick’s design team).  With rising costs of labor and materials, this proved to be the last coral rock residence to be constructed in Coral Gables (Coral Rock Residences Thematic Group).

Denman and Betsy Fink’s residence at 760 Anastasia Avenue, which they named “La Finca Fink” (Fink Farm) for its design that referenced rustic Spanish farmhouse forms.

By the 1940s, Manley began to develop a modernistic design philosophy.  When America entered World War II in 1941, the construction of single-family homes came to a halt.  All efforts went to the War, and Manley accepted a teaching position with the Navy V-12 Program at the University of Miami.  This helped her to strengthen relationships there, and she developed a lifelong passion for advancing the University.

In 1945, Manley designed 624 Fluvia Avenue for J. Ralph Murray, a U.M. professor and retired Navy officer, who used his veteran’s status for building priority (Coral Gables Permit #7078).  On October 15, 1945, government restrictions on construction were lifted, making this one of the first homes built in the Gables in the wake of World War II (Miami Herald Clipping: October 7, 1945).  With its smooth stucco, horizontal emphasis, broad soffits, lack of ornamentation, and attached garage, the underlying motif is Art Moderne.  The towering chimney is an ode to the chimneys of the 1920s but also serves to confiscate vertical emphasis that the second story would have offered, were it not balanced by this feature.  Outstanding in her portfolio, this is the only known residence that Manley designed in Coral Gables during the World War II era.  Another major project with enduring prospects caught her eye and took her away from designing single-family homes.

Postwar charm at 624 Fluvia Avenue.  Note the absence of a Spanish barrel tile roof.  Note the attached garage.  Barrel tile roofs were required in most cases before the War, and garages were almost always detached or significantly recessed.  This residence helped to create a modernistic tone for Coral Gables in the wake of World War II.  Unfortunately, within a few years, mass-produced ranches were in vogue and architect-designed custom homes like this were becoming a thing of the past.

Marion Manley and Robert Law Weed were selected to design the master plan for the University of Miami.  This was recognized as America’s first modern-tropical university campus on the mainland.  The plan received national praise, and Manley continued to do extensive work there, including the Memorial Classroom Building, Ring Theatre, Baptist Student Center, and numerous housing buildings/dormitories in a modernistic style (Son of the South Wind, Marion Manley U.M. Biography)

The Ring Theatre on the U.M. Campus.  With its circular auditorium, central lighting, and movable tiers, it was described by the press as a daring innovation in theater planning and “America’s most flexible playhouse.”  A revolving stage was used for proscenium and horseshoe style productions.

Her work was noted for advancing a subtropical design philosophy (that is so appropriate for our climate and environs) that took into account the rising costs of materials and labor after the War.  Manley received commendations from far and wide (including from Eero Saarinen, Richard Neutra, and Edward Durell Stone, among others).  Her tenacity for quality design and passion for advancing the profession (and mentoring the next generation of architects) are to be admired.  Full circle, Manley returned to the more rustic Old Florida wooden vernacular for inspiration later in life while still employing modern forms.  This style is now called Tropical Modern.  

Marion Manley was the American Institute of Architects’ representative to the Pan American Congresses in Lima (1947), Havana (1950), and Mexico City (1952).  In 1956, the Institute recognized her at their national convention in Los Angeles and conferred upon her the title of fellow, which was the highest honor for an architect at the time.  Before her, only four other architects from our region had received the honor since its inception in 1857: Richard Kiehnel (father of the Mediterranean style in South Florida), Jack Skinner (supervising architect after Phineas Paist died), Russell Pancoast (father of Art Deco in South Florida), and Igor Polevitzky (the great modernist).  After Manley, the next from our region was, of course, Alfred Browning Parker (AIA College of Fellows).  Curiously, Walter DeGarmo, George Fink, Morris Lapidus, Phineas Paist, and a few of the other greats never received this title.  It just goes to show that the best, the brightest, the most talented do not always receive the recognition they deserve!  And, on a sad note, the Russell Pancoast-designed Art Deco Custom Ranch at 1208 Asturia Avenue was recently demolished.  It was one of only about ten buildings that Pancoast designed in the Gables.  Hopefully, Miss Manley’s designs that are still extant will not meet the same fate!

Marion Manley died in 1984 at the age of 90.  “For more than six decades, she challenged herself to evolve with the times, and this kept her at the forefront of Miami’s architectural scene… Today many of the modest and compact buildings built in the two decades following the end of World War II, including many of Manley’s domestic buildings, have been demolished and largely replaced by new, overscaled, Mediterranean revival structures that bear little or no resemblance to the original Mediterranean buildings of the 1920s and 1930s… Manley was an advocate of sustainable architecture long before it was fashionable, and much of her work attests to a keen understanding of local materials and methods of construction, as well as to a respect for the native Florida landscape she strove to preserve.  Her sensibility would serve us well today,” wrote her biographers Lynn and Penabad.

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5 thoughts on “Opinion: Celebrating Marion Manley

  1. Thanks for this very interesting article about the first female architect in Coral Gables who designed with the Coral Gables icons. I have just written an article about Morris Lapidus and the four buildings he designed in Coral Gables, including two on UM campus, where Ms. Manley also designed many buildings.

  2. Thank you so much for this article. You have done a lot of research and I found it to be most interesting. What first caught my eye was Marion was both in Junction City, Ks. This is a very small town next to Fort Riley, Ks. Fort Riley was founded in 1853 and I lived there in the early 80,s. It is a beautiful military post with several magnificent stone quarters and buildings. I wonder if her family was associated with Ft. Riley?

  3. There is also an original documentary short produced in 2016 by Ben and Marissa Manley, about their Great Aunt Marion Manley titled: “Most Welcome Breezes: The Story of Marion Manley”

  4. You missed the fact that she designed the Chapel of the Venerable Bede on the UM campus!

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