By Michael E. Miller
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Nearly 70 years ago, when it was built, the small red cottage on NE 89th Street was a well-to-do child's toy, a playhouse constructed by a father as a gift for his nine-year-old daughter. Next week a wrecking ball is slated to turn it into a back yard.
"After twelve years I've had enough of cute," says John Callahan, an unsentimental man who's got bigger things to think about -- including the ultramodern home he and housemate Robert Taplin have erected directly in front of the "dollhouse" Taplin purchased in 1980.
The doomed little house, dwarfed by the lush foliage that surrounds it, was once part of a grand bayfront residence. Built in 1925 by developer William Phillips, the estate, which included a Moorish-style mansion and servants' quarters, was to be the focal point of an affluent subdivision. That idea never got off the ground, however, and all three structures now stand on separate lots near the intersection of NE Tenth Avenue and 89th Street just north of the Miami city limits in unincorporated Dade. Two schoolteachers bought the mansion and restored it to its former glory in the mid-Eighties; in 1983 it was designated by the county as a historic site. (The last of those two owners died in May.)
But not the dollhouse.
Originally comprising three rooms -- living room, kitchen, and bathroom -- the scaled-down cottage Phillips built for his daughter Mary Frances came complete with running water and electricity. "We lived way out in the country and I wanted to have something for my friends to do," a perky, Southern-accented Mary Frances Perner recalls today. "I just took it for granted that daddy built me a dollhouse. I used to have tea parties there." Perner says she was inspired to ask her father to build the house after seeing an illustration of an idyllic home in a forest in a Raggedy Ann and Andy book. "It was like a gingerbread house," adds Perner, now a resident of Miami Lakes. She and her friends entertained themselves in the playhouse, surrounded by child-size furniture that included a miniature coal-burning stove in the kitchen. The luxurious life came to an end after her father lost a fortune investing in an Idaho gold mine in the late 1920s. By 1935 the First National Bank had foreclosed on the estate. "That was a disgrace," Perner laments.
Over the years since the property was split off from the main house, Perner says, subsequent owners added two rooms to the dollhouse. But the structure was never renovated. Before Taplin and Callahan moved in, the little home was owned by a flamboyant woman who worked as a Mae West impersonator; before that, back in the Forties, a married couple lived there. (Ironically, says Perner, the husband was more than six feet tall. "I couldn't believe they lived there," she marvels. "I wouldn't have. It was claustrophobic.")
After Ed Wood, who owned the main house, died in May, Perner visited the old Phillips estate and paused to take a farewell look at her old dollhouse, gazing down at her childhood fancy through the big sliding doors of the new house. "It was sad to think how it's deteriorated over the years," she says, but adds that she has no objection to its imminent demise. "It will be good that it goes. I think it served its purpose."
Dade's historic-preservation activists have not shown much interest in the fate of the dollhouse, either -- and Callahan and Taplin would just as soon see things stay that way. Feeling that publicity might lead to increased scrutiny at a delicate time, they reluctantly granted brief interviews and declined to show the interior of the dollhouse or allow a photographer on the premises to shoot a picture. "I don't want the preservationists coming after us," Callahan says. "The new house has been a long, hard struggle and we're not prepared to take that chance."
Realtor Norah Schaefer, president of the Dade Heritage Trust, sold the Phillips mansion to the schoolteachers and is fatalistic about the little home's chances of survival. "It's pretty sad that the dollhouse will be hit by a bulldozer," she says. "But you can't do a bloody darned thing about it except play on the goodwill of the homeowner." Though its two built-on rooms -- a porch converted to an enclosed living room and a screened-in porch that serves as a bedroom -- may disqualify the cottage from being considered a landmark, Schaefer explains, "It does have something to do with the historical fabric of the neighborhood."
Callahan says he pondered the possibility of physically moving the structure to another site instead of simply tearing it down. "The thought crossed my mind," says the owner. "Many people have said, 'What a shame.' But money talks, bullshit walks."
Relocation would not be unprecedented. South Miami resident Susan Redding succeeded in saving a home this past year, after she learned that the first house ever built in the municipality (back when it was known by its original name, Larkins) was about to be leveled for a back yard owned by auto mogul Alan Potamkin. According to Redding, a former member of the South Miami preservation board, several weeks after she had mailed out post-card appeals to supporters of the Dade Heritage Trust, she was able to raise $29,000 (including a donation from Potamkin himself) that was needed to move the historic building. (Planning for the move to Cauley Square in Princeton is still under way, but the house has been spared.)
Taplin's and Callahan's decision to build the new house was spurred by Hurricane Andrew: The roots of a nearby sapodilla tree crashed into the dollhouse during the storm, briefly lifting it off its foundation and leaving cracks in the floors and walls. The owners spent a few months designing their spacious new $200,000 home, in which everything except the bathrooms is walled with windows. Though they broke ground on the new house a year ago, Callahan says construction has been "a nightmare," owing to frequent disputes with county inspectors. At press time, the owners still had not received a certificate of occupancy; when the papers come through (perhaps as soon as next week) the dollhouse will be transformed into a fond reminiscence.
"The memory will always be there," Callahan remarks. But he's clearly looking to the future. The new home, he vows, "will make Architectural Digest for sure.