Standing Still

Historic landmarks in preservation limbo

Local preservationists are a persistent lot with a higher frustration threshold than most. For every small triumph -- a stay of demolition here, a historic designation there -- they suffer several losses, usually delivered by a wrecking ball. Besides widespread apathy toward their cause, they must cope with constraints of time, staff, and money, forcing them to choose their battles carefully.

Margaret Cook, executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust, refuses to consider the effort a losing proposition. "I'm an optimist, I'm a Pollyanna, so I'm never going to give into that," she proclaims. "Being a native Miamian, I have to keep waving the flag. But considering what we have to do -- keeping up with every preservation board, every commission board -- it's a little mind-boggling."

Following is a list of ten historic properties in Dade whose fates hang in the balance. In several cases these buildings would long ago have been flattened were it not for a few citizens and government officials who continue to fight what Assistant County Attorney Tom Logue refers to as "the long twilight struggle."

A Kirk Semple
Fort Dallas Barracks (1849) and Wagner House (1850)
These two buildings, which bear no relation to one another, sit virtually side by side amid the no man's land of Lummus Park near the Miami River at NW Third Street.

Built by pioneer William English, Fort Dallas Barracks was originally located near the mouth of the Miami River, roughly where the Sheraton Biscayne Bay Hotel now stands, to serve as slave quarters on English's cotton plantation. In the 1850s the structure was pressed into use as an army barracks. Julia Tuttle acquired the English property in 1891 and lived there; the barracks is the only building that remains of her homestead. In 1925 the Daughters of the American Revolution paid to have it moved stone by stone to its current location.

Mere yards from the barracks is Wagner House, its hand-hewn lumber beams and siding and mortise-and-tenon joints composing the oldest known home still standing in Dade. Originally located along Wagner Creek (near Jackson Memorial Hospital), it was moved to the park in the 1980s by the Dade Heritage Trust and the City of Miami. Since then, both structures have sunk dangerously deep into decrepitude behind Lummus Park's locked gates.

Larkin High School (1912)
This one-room wooden schoolhouse, Dade's first high school, sits on what is now the campus of Sunset Elementary School in South Miami. Not having been used as a classroom for decades, the edifice was a storage shed by the late Seventies. A group of preservationists renovated it in 1980, but it has significantly deteriorated since then. Now Sunset administrators want it gone. A committee of preservationists and neighborhood residents is seeking funding and a new site on which to relocate the structure.

Brown House (1916)
Attempts to save the Brown House, a two-story limestone mansion built by furniture tycoon Charles Munro Brown at Bayshore Drive and NE Eighteenth St., have been exercises in frustration.

The property, located just north of the Grand, was purchased by developer Tibor Hollo, who built the Plaza Venetia condos as well as the Grand. In the mid-Eighties, Hollo was preparing to level the house for more condos when preservationists interceded. The City of Miami agreed to donate land on Watson Island to relocate the house, and Hollo gave the structure to the Dade Heritage Trust and helped pay for the move. (The relocation was not without incident: The house had to be cut into thirds, and during transit one of the segments slid off a truck as it crossed the MacArthur Causeway.)

Since being reassembled, the building has sat boarded up and untended. Vagrants and dozens of cats are now living in the house, whose walls are defaced with graffiti. Developers interested in restoring the site as a museum or restaurant have been discouraged by Watson Island's lack of plumbing, sewer, and electrical service.

Freedom Tower (1925)
For years downtown Miami's most prominent historical landmark has been vacant. Designed by the prominent New York firm Schultze and Weaver, the soaring Mediterranean-Revival structure opened as the Miami Daily News Tower. (The Tower is among Schultze and Weaver's most spectacular designs, but the firm also was responsible for the Grand Central Terminal and the Waldorf-Astoria, Pierre, and Sherry-Netherland hotels in New York City; the Breakers in Palm Beach; and in Dade, the old Roney Plaza, the Ingraham Building, and the Biltmore.) Although the tower was inspired by the Giralda in Seville, it contains Moorish and Palladian features that are unique to Miami.

The building acquired new significance during the 1960s, when it housed the Cuban Refugee Center. Known as the Freedom Tower, it became a symbol for Cuban immigrants on a par with the Statue of Liberty. When a Saudi sheik bought the tower and restored it in 1988 at a cost of about $12 million, civic leaders hoped the refurbished landmark at the entrance to the Port of Miami would spur the revitalization of Biscayne Boulevard. But plans for a private club, a banquet hall, and private offices never materialized. The sheik has since sold the property and, seven years later, the building is lifeless.

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