MIAMI — Strolling down Miami's Ocean Drive, Steve Toffoli's eyes dart toward the eye candy.
“Check out this one,” he says, pausing by an Art Deco hotel. “These two on the side are repairs; you can see the difference in the color. That one has three colors of chips in it. Sizes one and two.”
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Toffoli is spotting terrazzo, the colorful, geometric flooring found in much of South Florida's man-made landscape.
In 20 years as a terrazzo installer, he has made hundreds of trips to South Beach and places beyond to work on everything from grocery stores to police stations, mansions to clothing stores.
Since terrazzo — a mix of dyed cement and varied colors and sizes of marble chips that is poured and polished on-site — was the South Florida flooring of choice in the early and mid-20th century, Toffoli often is in charge of restorations. Yet, on his latest job, he has taken a step back into his own history.
A fourth-generation terrazzo man, he is restoring the floor of the Betsy Ross Hotel at 14th Street and Ocean Drive in Miami. It's a 1942 Art Deco gem designed by Lawrence Murray Dixon, who also created The Raleigh, The Marlin and The Victor. While he has no relation to Dixon, the original floor in the Betsy Ross was created by his grandfather, Louis Toffoli.
“It's in my blood,” says Toffoli, 39, of Doral, Fla.-based Creative Terrazzo. “I'm fascinated by it.”
Through the 1960s, shiny terrazzo floors were common in homes, hotels, offices and public buildings. They were durable, unique and good for hot weather because they did not become as warm as other floorings. Yet, from the late ‘60s through the early ‘90s, other types of flooring, especially carpet, became more popular.
“In the ‘70s and ‘80s, people went carpet happy. They put carpet on everything,” Toffoli says. “Now, people are pulling back those carpets to find beautiful terrazzo floors.”
Yet as terrazzo has experienced a resurgence in the last two decades, the number of dedicated terrazzo installers has dropped and new technologies have changed the ways tiles are created. According to the National Tile and Terrazzo Association, there are about 3,000 dedicated terrazzo installers in the country.
“There used to be just one type of terrazzo,” Toffoli says. Now, there are a few, including epoxy, a thin terrazzo — 3 / 8-inch thick compared to half-inch traditional terrazzo — that uses synthetic materials and comes pre-dyed.
At 3,500 square feet, it will take Toffoli six weeks to complete the pink, maroon and white Betsy Ross floor, which he began in late July. There are circles, half circles, triangles and squares to shape with brass strips.
Each color of terrazzo is mixed and poured on separate days. When dry, the floor is polished and the marble chips exposed with a wet grinder made of industrial diamonds. The cost: $12 to $20 per square foot.
Toffoli learned the trade at age 18, when he did his first job with his dad's company — American Terrazzo and Tile — restoring the Miami Beach police station at 11th Street and Washington Avenue.
Since then he has had a hand in many major terrazzo jobs in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. That includes the Bass Museum of Art, the BankUnited Center, Barry University, Concourses H and J at Miami International Airport, the Miami Beach Convention Center and Miami Children's Hospital.
“Sometimes I still go to the higher authority, my dad, to have him match colors,” Toffoli says.
That's Ray Toffoli, 71, who retired from installations 12 years ago but still works in the office for the David Allen tile and terrazzo company.
“I started when I was 12, working with my father during summers,” says the elder Toffoli, who lives in Southwest Miami-Dade. “It's just something that evolved through the sons,” including his two other children, who grew up to be terrazzo workers but later changed professions.
Ray Toffoli's father—Louis Toffoli—came to Miami from northern Italy, where terrazzo was invented during the Renaissance by Venetian construction workers who found uses for scrap pieces of marble left over from custom molds.
“We used to go when we were little to dad's warehouse and play with the terrazzo chips,” says Steve Toffoli, who grew up in a terrazzo-less house in South Miami and lives in East Kendall, Fla., with his wife and two kids, Leanne, 2, and Ryan, 6.
Will the terrazzo trade pass to another generation? Ryan is already interested, his dad says.
“I want him to be a doctor,” Toffoli says, but “he's already told me he wants to come on the job.”
—Terrazzo is created by mixing cement, dye and marble chips. It's poured directly onto the floor, left to dry and then polished to expose the marble.
—Though more costly than other flooring options, terrazzo will last for decades, which has made it popular with environmentally conscious builders who don't want to have to replace flooring.
—Terrazzo can be used both indoors and outdoors.
—It gained popularity in South Florida because it lent itself well to Art Deco designs and was cool to the touch.
—Terrazzo was popular in homes in the early 20th century, but new terrazzo jobs in homes are rare. While you can install your own tile, terrazzo requires a professional.
© 2008, The Miami Herald.
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PHOTO (from MCT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): terrazzo AMX-2008-09-02T08:26:00-04:00