West Palm Beach’s “Darth Vader building” opened in 1985, when the nation was in the grip of the first “Star Wars” mania.
As the tall, dark and mysterious-looking Northbridge Center began to loom 21 stories over downtown, an editorial writer from this newspaper mused that the black glass tower “would be an ideal place for Darth Vader to use as a galactic operations center.”
The name stuck.
This week, people driving by the three-building landmark between Olive Avenue and Flagler Drive have another reason to recall the nickname as the latest episode in the Star Wars saga, called “The Force Awakens,” opens on Thursday night.
Despite periodic and unsuccessful efforts by its owners to disavow any connection between the dark lord of the Siths and the dark monolith, the Darth Vader connection has persisted for 30 years.
Few locals ever used the building’s official name.
“We would tell new clients ‘We’re in the Northbridge Center.’ They’d hesitate, then we’d say, ‘the Darth Vader building’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, right,” recalled architect Paul Twitty, 79, whose firm, Schwab & Twitty, designed the building in the early 1980s and occupied an entire floor there for 20 years.
Twitty says he’s always liked the association with the movie world’s most successful merchandising franchise.
“I think it’s fun. It’s a distinctive name,” said Twitty, who admits he isn’t much of a Star Wars fan, although he thinks he’s seen one or two of the movies. “I did really like the music from the first one,” he said of the John Williams score.
Dallas-based Gaedeke Group paid $24 million for the complex in 1993 and for years tried to disassociate the building from the Star Wars villain.
But in 2011, the company (which put the center on the market this fall) finally opted for the “if you can’t fight ‘em, join ‘em’ path and created a marketing video showing Darth Vader going to work at the building carrying a black briefcase.
The tagline was, “Where did you think he worked?”
As the sleek and sexy Northbridge Center rose above West Palm Beach 30 years ago, it provided a jolt of urban energy for the city’s then-small and snoozy downtown, populated by blocky stucco offices and old low-rise retail shops.
Schwab & Twitty had already designed the stark white Trump Plaza towers on downtown’s south end, which was now bookended by this sophisticated black high-rise on the north side.
Twitty said his clients sent him and his late-partner Ron Schwab to Houston to check out that city’s modernist glass skyscrapers and told them, “design something like those.”
“West Palm Beach was searching for its identity at the time,” said Twitty, “and this was certainly a departure from what was there. It was to be an iconic building, something you didn’t see in the downtown West Palm Beach skyline at the time.”
They designed the building with a distinctive taper and indentation on the end toward the Intracoastal.
“We called it a fish mouth,” said Twitty.
But “The Fish Mouth Building” doesn’t have quite the same Force to it.
AWAKENING THE FORCE
To get ready for Thursday night’s premiere of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” local movie theaters are hosting a marathon of the six previous ‘Star Wars’ movies.
- Parisian 20, CityPlace, West Palm Beach. Begins at 4 a.m. Thursday. Info: carmike.com
- Cinemark Palace 20, Boca Raton. Begins at 3 a.m. Info: cinemark.com
- Delray Marketplace, Delray Beach. Begins at 4 a.m. Info: delray.cinebowlandgrille.com