It might be hard to believe the “Glass Bank” was once a visually stunning piece of architecture. Opened in 1962, the structure was entirely glass-walled before a 1980s renovation gave it a brutalist makeover. The building was penned by a famed local architect and served the city for more than four decades before hurricane damage forced the last commercial tenants to relocate in 2004.
Over the next ten years disagreements between owners prevented needed repairs, and the financial crisis prevented any bailout. Only one man stood in the way of the building’s demolishment, but he couldn’t fight forever. The Glass Bank’s fate was eventually decided by the courts in 2014, and by early 2015 more than fifty years of Cocoa Beach history was demolished.
Cocoa Beach sits on a beautiful strip of sand along Florida’s east coast, splitting the difference between Jacksonville and Miami. It is mere miles from Patrick Air Force Base, NASA’s John F. Kennedy Space Center, and NASA’s Cape Canaveral – all of which heavily influenced the region and helped it earn the nickname “the Space Coast.”
In the 1960s the American Space Program was quickly transforming Cocoa Beach, and overall modernization bled into the city’s architecture.
One of the crown jewels of this metamorphosis was the First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Cocoa Beach.
The grand opening was in April of 1962. First Federal Savings and Loan occupied the majority of the retail space at 505 North Orlando Avenue in Cocoa Beach, Florida, but over time residents would come to know the five-story structure with parabolic curves as the “Glass Bank.”
On the top floor was the Sky Room, a restaurant with 360-degree views of Cocoa Beach.
It was a celebrated opening, however not all was flawless in the beginning. As beautiful as the Glass Bank was, its original design exposed one serious design flaw: The lack of easy and freight access to the upper levels.
With no direct elevator, customers and freight delivers to the Sky Room endured an unnecessarily onerous journey to the top floor. Perhaps this was a factor in the closing of the Sky Room in 1963, just a year after the Glass Bank opened.
If the lack of direct access was a problem, it was remedied with the addition of the express elevator to the exterior of the building in 1963 (pictured at left).
This time restaurant and night club Ramon’s Rainbow Room would take over the top space, bringing food, music, and an atmosphere which proved popular in the era.
To its credit Ramon’s Rainbow Room became a legend in its own right, hosting astronauts, celebrities, and politicians on special occasions and often drawing crowds. It was known for its cocktails, jazz music, and good food.
Ramon’s Caesar Salad dressing was reportedly delicious and “unlike any other Caesar salad you’ve ever tasted; creamier, with a hint of sweetness and perhaps a bit of curry.” The dressing was famous, but the recipe was kept a closely guarded secret.
The original Ramon’s was a dark, ground-floor eatery that shared menus and astronaut-themed décor with the later Rainbow Room. But it lacked the more electric atmosphere provided by a glass penthouse.
With live music and 360-degree views of Cocoa Beach, the Rainbow Room was understandably a popular place.
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For seven years Ramon’s Rainbow Room entertained and fed its guests atop the Glass Bank, but as times change so do tastes.
By the late 1960s the penthouse lounge had already begun to fall out of favor. It closed in 1970, but was re-opened as “Marby’s Rainbow Room” later that year.
Marby’s Rainbow Room would not see its second anniversary; by 1972 the top-level restaurant would close for the final time. Meanwhile, First Federal Savings and Loan was still the primary tenant for the remainder of the building. Unbeknownst to those working inside, it too would soon become a former tenant.
During the 1980s the Savings and Loan crisis unwound nearly a third of the thrifts in the country. Included in the speculative lending carnage was the death of First Federal in Cocoa Beach.
Twenty years into its existence, the Glass Bank lost its original tenant.
Man with a Plan
Cocoa Beach resident and attorney Frank Wolfe wasn’t yet fifty years old when he purchased the rights to the penthouse space of the Glass Bank in the early 1980s.
Wolfe was an aggressive attorney who enjoyed an illustrious career spanning such positions as city attorney to chairman of the famous Ron John’s surf shop.
Wolfe transformed the look of the Glass Bank building with radical modifications that shifted the building from glass to stucco. Following the brutalist ethos, the building now appeared fortress-like, with concrete in place of glass. The penthouse restaurant was expanded to the perimeter of the building, removing the skywalk. Smaller rectangular portholes took the place of the former floor-to-ceiling windows.
In an irony of ironies, Wolfe had erected a two-story windowless penthouse on top of the Glass Bank.
The corners of the building were reinforced with concrete and covered in stucco. Gone was the floor-to-ceiling glass and wraparound viewing balcony for patrons on the top level. Ramon’s former express elevator now became a private elevator entrance for the new residence.
The Glass Bank had become a brutalist stucco monolith, although it continued to be known by the more flattering name. Local blogger Dan Reiter summarized one perspective on Frank Wolfe’s contributions to the Glass Bank:
“…her ill-fitting crown, the 1981 concrete penthouse addition, so willfully antagonistic of the intentions of Architect Knight––a windowless box, devoid of glass, off-kilter, a brutalist plug, blockading the cosmic flight of her skirt walls.”
Wolfe’s modifications were indeed a brutalist interpretation of Reginald Knight’s all-glass mid-century wonder. Whether or not Knight would have approved, we’ll never know. He passed away in 1973, (some say fortunately) before the building’s transfiguration.
Glass Bank Transformation
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For all the teeth-gnashing over the exterior modifications, few were privy to the wonders that lie within the structure’s penthouse. To most it resembled rooftop HVAC equipment surrounded by an unattractive and unnecessarily large beauty wall.
In fact, the five-story building had been expanded into a seven-story building.
The public-at-large did not realize what Frank Wolfe was doing, but the attorney was happy to keep secrets. It would be nearly three decades before Frank would treat the public to an inside-look.
The Wolfe Penthouse
Frank Wolfe concocted a plan for his own private retreat, one in which he could escape the occasional unpleasant realities of the outside world. This concept is not dissimilar to that of a “man cave.” It’s not just a place to hang out, it’s a metaphorical security blanket, or a retreat for times of adversity or stress.
It just so happens Frank built his man cave atop a mid-century glass-walled landmark. But let us forget about the raison d’être for a moment; pictures will struggle, and words likely fail to do Frank’s penthouse justice.
The Glass Bank’s penthouse was what Tom Hank’s character in the 1980’s classic movie Big would have built if he were an executive for a toy company in Cocoa Beach instead of New York City.
Entry to the apartment is made via the exterior express elevator. Upon disembarking, visitors step into a nature-themed foyer sporting a small foot bridge with access to the arched entry to the penthouse (pictured below).
The sound of running water explains the foot bridge. It spans a small artificial stream fed by – what else – an extravagant indoor fountain on the right wall, doubling as a waterfall for the room’s 100 square-foot ecosystem.
Once across the foot bridge and inside the front door, the small foyer gives way to an enormous windowless two-story, several-thousand square-feet space. Rich wood paneling lines the walls and ceiling. Clean recessed can lights illuminate the main room from above.
Against the far wall, a faux-stone mountain is the room’s centerpiece. At its base, a giant fireplace added ambiance to gatherings and took the edge off coastal winter nights.
The edges of the indoor mountain reach to the far sides of either wall, each slope with its own forest illuminated by Christmas lights.
The absence of windows did not deter Wolfe from creating his own sky. More than a dozen faux clouds dot the walls on either side of the mountain.
Frank Wolfe preferred soft to hard edges. He appreciated lines which suggested a continuous flow or motion. Preferences for such amorphous shapes and waves were influenced by the ocean. Residing in Cocoa Beach offered one an intimate familiarity.
Almost everything had rounded lines. Cabinets, chairs, closets, entryway arches, sinks, tables, and tubs. A quick scan of the penthouse reveals a design language not difficult to decipher.
In the center of the room, a sunken group of exquisite leather couches encircle a round glass table. To the right of the couches, an arc lamp illuminates a six-place oval table in the dining area. On the other side of the room a curved bar with a padded and tufted treatment harkens back to the 70s (pictured above right). Adjacent to the bar, a Christmas village display stood erected year-round in a permanent in-wall diorama.
Frank’s circular office (pictured above) occupied another corner. Deep rich mahogany tones offset those of the brighter cedar in this rounded enclave. The walls were back-lit to effect a sense of, coincidentally enough, being in a rounded perimeter office. A large circle in the ceiling above housed fluorescent lights designed to mimic a skylight.
The kitchen (pictured at left) stands in stark contrast to the rest of the apartment. Step inside to what looks like a cross between the kitchen of a luxury motor coach and the galley of a presidential submarine, but designed by the architects of the U.S.S. Enterprise.
Liberal use of cool fluorescent lighting gave the appearance of natural daylight. Laundry facilities were smartly built-in to the cabinetry on the right, efficiently hidden behind a curved closet next to the refrigerator.
Upstairs, a seating area claims the loft and overlooks the main living area below. The balcony is curved and weaves from one side of the wall to the edge of the stairs, which are also curved and lacked consecutive steps of equal width. A large swath of leather affixed to the ceiling looks like a cushioned bumper for a nearby alcove’s wavy molding. Crown molding varied from room to room but was fashioned from leather or a carpet-like fabric.
The master bed occupies another round space, sitting in its own circular enclave and topped with a unique padded leather ceiling (pictured below).
The master bath was every bit as unique. A two-tone carpet cuts a soft path past the bathing area to the closet. On one side the shower and toilet sit in a carpeted alcove, the former separated from the latter by a set of elaborate window curtains.
And as any gentleman’s private bath should have, Frank was sure to include his own urinal.
A Jacuzzi tub is the centerpiece of a rounded sunken enclave in the middle of the room, ringed by strip lighting – in a warmer color and offsetting the cooler daylight-hued lights from above (pictured below).
The apartment’s mountain theme carries upstairs onto a giant oil on canvas which dominates the bathing alcove. It depicts a peaceful scene on the banks of a river underneath a mountain.
Aiding in the effect is a faux-stone wall, made of a synthetic foam and situated adjacent to the canvas, which rises from the backside of the tub and reaches to the ceiling.
Beyond the tub were the master closet space, with a large motorized rack in which Frank could push a button and spin his garments and shoes whilst picking out the day’s ensemble. Given the narrow space of the closet, it must have been a shrewd facilitator.
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2004 Hurricane Season
In later years the Glass Bank’s concrete and stucco modifications were intended to be more functional – if less attractive – and better-equipped to deal with the high summer temperatures and occasionally rough weather.
But few glass structures of this vintage could stand in the way of a motivated category four storm. The 2004 hurricane season was especially unkind to Florida, showing its east coast more major hurricanes than any year since 1964.
Few buildings escaped the wrath of all three storms. The Glass Bank was no exception, although the penthouse, with its lack of windows, was spared.
Windows now broken and yielding to the elements, the building’s outer layer had been breached. Exposure introduced mold, mildew, and an accelerating rate of decay. If the environmental breach wasn’t enough of an uphill battle, the Glass Bank was afflicted with another issue common with buildings of this vintage: asbestos.
The final tenants of the Glass Bank building were Huntington Bank on the lower level, Nautilus Fitness on the mid-levels, and Frank Wolfe’s personal condominium in the penthouse.
All except for Wolfe left after the 2004 hurricane season.
Toward the end of its life the building was co-owned by the Glass Bank Condominium Association (GBCA) and Frank Wolfe; the former controlled all but the penthouse and wanted to restore the iconic building to its 1960s former glory. Frank was not interested in losing his penthouse.
GBCA representative Joseph Yossifon (pictured at right) did not see eye-to-eye with Frank Wolfe on fixes, remodel plans, or the overall direction of the building. Hurricane damage was extreme, but a lack of cooperation saw remodel plans evaporate.
Despite the hurricane damage, Wolfe’s penthouse still had electricity and running water. This only emboldened Frank to further entrench himself in his position. While no action was taken by the building’s owners to fix the ailing structure, the city began to impose fines – at one point charging the Glass Bank owners $200 per day.
By January of 2013 the owners faced $161,600 in city code violations. Tack on other assessments, fees, and repairs to the building owed to Yossifon, and Wolfe’s tally had eclipsed one million dollars. Over the years Mr. Wolfe had also accumulated millions of dollars in assessments, fees, and repairs to Mr. Yossifon. The GBCA filed suit against Mr. Wolfe, who countered with a suit of his own against the GBCA.
“It’s just been like that for more than a decade, even when times were good nobody did anything with the building, so we’re tired of waiting and so as we promote Cocoa Beach… Ijust want to see the problem solved.”
– Mayor Dave Netterstrom
Yossifon was reluctant to yield to the city’s cries for demolishment, but ultimately agreed to a package deal that would waive the previously-assessed fines and liens.
In exchange for the building owners’ agreement, the city agreed to front the money required for demolition, and allowed for it to be paid back over the next three years.
The community was divided on the fate of the Cocoa Beach landmark, but most could agree any action was better than the status quo. As the years dragged on, votes for preservation proved harder to find.
“It’s absolutely wonderful. It brings back, for those who have been here, the space careers. It brings back a different time in America.”
– Phil Roberts, Cocoa Beach resident
Frank Wolfe effects not retrieved (courtesy michaelbrnd)
Beginning of the End
By September of 2013 the Glass Bank had accumulated city fines totaling $210,600. Convinced the fines were not going to achieve the desired results, city attorneys sought an injunction on a nuisance claim either forcing action by the owners or allowing the city to take control of the beleaguered property.
The city had the good graces of Yossifon and the GBCA, but Wolfe was steadfast in his stubbornness.
For his part, Frank Wolfe had an easy solution for the city: Just buy the penthouse. He was not satisfied with the proposition of releasing his home in exchange to forgive debts which he believed to be fabricated and unjust. However municipalities aren’t in the habit of speculating in real estate, and Cocoa Beach wasn’t in a position to pay Frank’s market price.
Frank’s world began to quickly unravel in the summer of 2013. The ailing Wolfe had temporarily returned to Maine to be with family; six months later, in January of 2014, the city moved forward with its grievance filing and submitted to the courts an agreement signed by the Glass Bank Condominium Association. In preparation for the demolition, the city shut off power and water to the penthouse.
The judge ultimately sided with the city and the GBCA. Wolfe, who was deteriorating and had recently returned to Florida from Maine, rejected the proposal and appealed the ruling. Weeks later, on February 4th, the court ruled in favor of the GBCA in a breach-of-contract lawsuit against Wolfe.
The very next day, on February 5th, 2014, the court approved the demolition order for the Glass Bank.
“A lot of people were members of the Nautilus Club. We banked at Huntington Bank. It brings back memories for me, but I’m also glad to see it gone, no doubt.”
– Tony Hernandez, Cocoa Beach attorney
Frank Wolfe was dejected and weary. Years of legal battles had taken their toll on his health and wallet. With appeals and personal money exhausted, Frank had no more obstacles left to offer the impending demolition.
After the court decision Frank attempted to retrieve his effects from the building (diplomas, family photos, and other personal heirlooms). But when he pushed the elevator call button, nothing happened. He remembered the building’s power had been turned off – along with his access to the penthouse.
“…Frank told me that he was shut out from his penthouse atop the former Glass Bank because the electricity had been turned off for safety reasons, disabling the elevator. The city of Cocoa Beach had red tagged it and was refusing to allow him access to retrieve his personal property. He was leaving that night where he would make one last personal plea, this time to the city commission.”
If there was an appropriate end of the road for Frank Wolfe, it was in the penthouse of the Glass Bank building.
At approximately 3:06 p.m. on Wednesday, February 5th, 2014, the Cocoa Beach Police Department responded to a call of a body found in front of the building. A man was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Francis Marvin Wolfe was unable to make his spiritual return to the penthouse; the 82 year-old was discovered collapsed in the vestibule in front of the penthouse elevator access door. It was the closest he could get to his favorite place; the building’s lack of power finally defeated him.
Attorney Scott Widerman gave a statement on behalf of the GBCA:
“Our position is one of disbelief. We are naturally sorry to hear about this tragic event. It is not imaginable that this breach of contract action would have this result. The Trial and Appellate Court found Mr. Wolfe responsible for the damage to the building. This was not the outcome anyone could imagine or desired.”
Frank M. Wolfe was born in Hartford, CT November 24, 1931. He completed his high school education in Hartford and enlisted in the Coast Guard serving three years in Korean Theater. He graduated from Rollins College, Winter Park, FL on June 6, 1958, with a degree in Bachelor of Arts, Business Administration and psychology. He then attended Stetson University College of Law, St. Petersburg, FL and earned his Juris Doctor degree on January 28, 1961. Before moving to Cocoa Beach he was Special Assistant to the Attorney General of the State of Florida. He was a senior partner in Wolfe, Kirschenbaum & Taylor, which later became Wolfe, Kirschenbaum, Caruso, Mosley and Kabboord, a major law firm in Cocoa Beach, FL. He also served as City Attorney from 1963 to 1967. During those years, he served on the board of several banks in addition to being one of the founders and directors of the Merritt Square Bank, Merritt Island, FL. From 1971 to 1981, he was CEO and Chairman of Leader International Inns, Inc., a large real estate company that owned and operated approximately 500 units in the Brevard County area. He was past Chairman of Ron Jon Surf Shop, headquartered in Cocoa Beach, FL, a large retailer known throughout the world. Mr. Wolfe was renowned for his architectural designing ability. He resided in the unique penthouse he built on top of the Glass Bank Building in Cocoa Beach, FL and he spent summer months in Maine where he designed and built a home on the Wells Reserve. He was generous to a fault and gave of himself to so many over the years, far too numerous to count. He was a loyal friend and advocate of the underdog. He demanded excellence of himself and his internal code of ethics was unshakable. He was loved by many. He left an impact on many lives and will not soon be forgotten. Died because he wanted to . . . Lived because he dared to.
End of the Glass Bank building
When Frank died, his estate elected to cooperate with the city. A deal was struck in April of 2014 which granted the city permission to demolish the iconic building.
According to the terms of the agreement, the Wolfe estate would be reimbursed for the property value when it was later sold. Similar to the deal with Yossifon and in exchange for allowing demolition, the Wolfe estate’s liens would also be resolved.
The bidding process for Cocoa Beach demolition projects typically sees at least 90 days, but the decades of pent-up motivation to raze the Glass Bank was immense. Within days of the agreement, city hall was collecting bids.
Most relieved of all parties appeared to be the city, its hands finally washed of the issue. But the agreement did little for the on-going dispute between GBCA trustee Yossifon and the estate of Frank Wolfe. City attorney Skip Fowler was succinct in his assessment:
Cocoa Beach obtained eight bids for the demolition of the Glass Bank building. In September of 2014 the city selected Crusader Demolition of Lakeland, Florida, to handle the tear-down.
Duration: 50 days
But the Glass Bank wasn’t going down easy. As-if to do Frank proud, the building provided one last obstacle to delay the inevitable: On closer examination, Crusader Demolition discovered more asbestos than expected.
However the project stalled only momentarily; in the middle of December the city commissioners quickly approved spending an additional $32,320.
Just get it done.
December of 2014 was spent removing asbestos from the Glass Bank and salvaging the scrap materials. Demolition cost was adjusted to $177,000 and scheduled for completion in February of 2015. Cocoa Beach accommodated for the adjustment by placing an additional lien on the property (when the property eventually sells, the city gets reimbursed the amount “borrowed” before the seller receives the proceeds).
The empty lot should retain significant value: 82 feet of air rights will remain with the property, according to the demolition agreement.
“It’s a shame to see it go but it’s not structurally sound and it’s an attraction for vagrants. It’s a public nuisance.”
– John Stroud, Cocoa Beach resident
Followers of the demolition story were temporarily distracted by a feral cat nicknamed Morris that had taken up residence in the abandoned building. After Morris was discovered it wasn’t long before a campaign was started to save the cat, which of course led to a dedicated Facebook page. His eventual capture prompted a news conference, and the feline former tenant even got his own day in Cocoa Beach.
Some residents made daily visits to the site during the demolition, memorializing via pictures and drone footage (watch below).
Spectators cheered when the last of the former Glass Bank came down on Groundhog day, 2015. If the public was feeling conflicted or reminiscent, it was buried in the rubble.
“It has been a big part of Cocoa Beach’s history. I can recall many, many years ago actually having dinner in the restaurant up there. It’s just a piece of Cocoa Beach that, well it’s kind of sad to see it go.”
– Franklin Glass, Cocoa Beach resident.
Most building damage was sustained in 2004, but the reality was the Glass Bank had already been decomposing for years.
Where did it all go wrong? Cocoa Beach author Dan Reiter offers the following:
“You might blame it on the space bust of the 60’s, or the drug-riddled aftershocks of Nam, or the malaise and despair of the disco age. You might blame it on recessions, on layoffs, on depressed property prices, on the steady, gradual degradation of downtown, on hurricanes or lawyers or men possessed… The Glass Bank was the closest thing to a landmark of architecture that we have here in Cocoa Beach.”
You might also blame it on an inefficient floor plan, or an era when commercial architects could give function a backseat to form and corporate budgets were under less strict control. You might blame it on higher building maintenance costs, an older infrastructure, or point to the continuous threat of hurricanes.
Surely NASA’s reduction of operations in 2011 had a heavy hand in the reduced fortunes of the local economy. Thousands lost their jobs as the Kennedy Space Center was mothballed.
Ironically, the largest obstacle just might have been the building’s ownership – or more specifically the parties’ inability to reach an accord.
Fortunately a group of preservationists have worked to re-create a virtual Glass Bank building. Dr. Lori C. Walters is a Research Assistant Professor with the Institute for Simulation and Training and Department of History at the University of Central Florida, and leads a group pioneering the school’s Virtual Heritage program. Known as ChronoPoints, the group focuses on examining historic structures utilizing the latest digital technology.
3D laser scans are created to help develop accurate models of buildings in their heyday. After successfully recreating the 1960s New York World’s Fair (watch), the group turned their attention to the Glass Bank building.
Dr. Walters was allowed to scan the building prior to its demolition, which established dimensions and shape. But the goal was to re-create the Glass Bank in the 1960s, not the Stucco Bank of the 1980s – so vintage photographs have been requested to be scanned into the computer for rendering. (Have vintage photographs of the Glass Bank at its zenith? Contact Dr. Walters and let her know!)
In February of 2015 the group released a video which shows the progress to date.
“Certainly the year you were first exposed to the building plays a role in how you feel about it.”
-Dr. Lori Walters, Institute for Simulation and Training and Department of History at the University of Central Florida.