BY RODOLFO ROMAN
Special to The Miami Herald
Antolin Carbonell, a retired architect with Miami-Dade Aviation, recalls the day he was given an assignment documenting the history of the Opa-locka Executive Airport, a task that would spark a new interest in his life: researching South Florida’s history.
“I am interested in knowledge,” said Carbonell, whose assignment included researching the Cadet’s Lounge of the Naval Reserve Air Base at the Opa-locka airport.
“I knew instantly that there was a very important unrecorded story in that building,” said Carbonell, part of the nonprofit MiMo Biscayne Association.
Since then, he has been on a historical journey to learn more of the untold stories of Northeast Miami, where he has lived for most of the last 49 years.
For the Belle Meade resident, that journey includes organizing walking tours of Biscayne Boulevard neighborhoods, including the MiMo district.
For the third season of the walking tours, which kicks off Saturday, Carbonell is teaming up with another history buff, John Bachay, who also conducts tours through Miami Beach’s Art Deco district.
The monthly tours will continue through April.
“The stories of the people who lived and built Miami interest me. Miami is full of stories,” said Carbonell, who since his retirement, has spent countless hours researching details in museums, libraries and on the Internet.
The mile-long walking tour covers about 160 years of history along Biscayne Boulevard. The tour starts at the landmark Vagabond Motel at 7301 Biscayne Blvd., which is currently vacant.
The tour will focus on the boom time of Belle Meade and Aqua Marine subdivision and the architecture of the Mediterranean Revival, Art Deco and MiMo — which stands for Miami Modern — periods. The famed Coppertone Girl sign also will be highlighted. Carbonell adds he also plans to discuss the history of Benjamin Green, the pharmacist who invented the tan-darkening lotion that become known as Coppertone.
Carbonell is part of the MiMo Biscayne Association, a nonprofit that promotes the area’s history, as well as its boutique stores, trendy restaurants and businesses.
A historical building mentioned on the tour is the first Playboy Club franchise. It was a hot spot but closed in the late 1980s, eventually replaced by an Advanced Discount Auto Parts on the corner of Northeast 77th Street.
Carbonell’s walking tour also tells the tale of Charles Torrey Simpson, a naturalist who explored the Everglades and built a house on property he owned along Northeast 69th Street in 1903.
“He let people know the tropical plants had value,” Carbonell said. “He started a movement to save the Everglades.”
Carbonell credits his former job with teaching him the nuts and bolts of researching. As an architect for the county’s aviation department seven years ago, he was assigned the task of checking out the mantelpiece in the Cadet’s Lounge at Opa-locka airport. The building was about to get demolished.
But Carbonell managed to help preserve the mantelpiece, doors and several trim pieces from the lounge, now housed at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida.
Aside from the tours, Carbonell is also helping an effort to reconstruct the Miami Springs house of aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss as a national landmark. Curtiss was the first U.S. licensed aircraft manufacturer.
Proceeds from the walk will go to defray the cost of the Coppertone Girl sign, which was installed at its new location at 7300 Biscayne Blvd. last year.