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.

Stonegate (1927)
Built by a retired contractor from Chicago, this coral-rock house just outside South Miami is the largest in Dade County and received local historic designation as an outstanding example of Mediterranean vernacular architecture. During the 1980s, while its owner unsuccessfully tried to sell the neighborhood on his plans to build a subdivision on the site, the property sat empty and neglected as a combination of water damage and vandalism destroyed much of its interior.

This past April Metro-Dade preservationists and the property's current owners agreed to put Stonegate on the market for nine months in hopes of finding a suitable buyer. Asking price: $1.9 million.

Braman Cadillac headquarters (1928)
Braman Cadillac is one of Miami's oldest car showrooms and, along with the Sears Tower, one of the few remaining vestiges of Biscayne Boulevard's glory days. According to City of Miami preservation officer Sarah Eaton, the facility, now under the aegis of car magnate and Philadelphia Eagles owner Norman Braman, was one of several that formed an automobile row. Although the city designated it as a historic structure, in February Braman was given the go-ahead by the City of Miami's Historic and Environmental Preservation Board to demolish the four-story building.

Hoping to find a buyer who would maintain the building, the preservation board specified a six-month waiting period before demolition. (This is the second time Braman has secured a certificate to raze the showroom. Two years ago he gained approval but failed to file for a demolition permit before the certificate expired.) So far, according to Sarah Eaton, no buyer has expressed interest; the current six-month waiting period expires next month.

Sears Tower (1929)
No local edifice has provoked as much debate in recent years as the Sears Tower, and there seems to be no middle ground. One camp praises the landmark as an architectural gem, the oldest Art Deco structure in Dade. The other camp lambastes it as an embarrassing eyesore that should be demolished immediately.

The octagonal tower is part of a larger building at the northwest corner of Biscayne Boulevard and Thirteenth Street that stands as one of the remaining vestiges of the era when the Biscayne Boulevard Company developed the boulevard into a commercial thoroughfare. This year, in a rare eructation of preservation-mindedness, Miami commissioners passed a resolution urging that the structure be preserved and incorporated into the design of a $139 million performing arts center slated to be built on a 5.5-acre plot that includes the Sears site. Cesar Pelli, the New Haven-based architect whose firm won the contract to design the complex, has said he will attempt to integrate the tower into his plan.

Pan Am hangars (1930)
In 1930 Pan American World Airways opened a base for its commercial passenger seaplane service to Latin America from Coconut Grove. Its terminal on Dinner Key, a Streamline Moderne-style structure, is now the Miami City Hall; four hangars also still stand and serve as dry dockage and boat-repair facilities for a marina.

For years the fate of the Pan Am hangars has been unsure. Owners of nearby businesses and hotels have urged the city to tear down the old metal structures, and over the years city commissioners haven't concealed similar desires. But preservationists have urged that the hangars be restored, citing their importance to local history and to the history of aviation. Community groups and elected officials have discussed a variety of mixed-use proposals for the sites including a farmers market, aviation museum, cafe, and public sailing center.

Coconut Grove Naval Reserve Center (1938)
Four buildings stand on this 32-acre site at 2610 Tigertail Ave.: a mess hall/office building, a garage, and two barracks. They originally served as the barracks and administrative buildings for a U.S. Coast Guard air station, which also included a hangar built in 1932 on nearby Dinner Key. (The hangar later served as a boxing venue and now houses the Shake-A-Leg sailing program for handicapped sailors.) The station became the busiest air-sea rescue facility in the world and was later turned over to the U.S. Navy. In 1991, when navy officials informed the City of Miami of its plans to level the site, preservationists protested. While they admit the center isn't a topnotch architectural work, they do assert that its role in the history of the Coast Guard makes it worthy of preservation. According to Sarah Eaton, the site is eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

The center was awarded to the Miami Coalition for the Homeless under the McKinney Act, which assigns surplus federal property to homeless-advocacy groups. Neighbors objected to the coalition's plan to convert the center into a facility for 80 single mothers and their children; the opposition's cause has been buoyed by a 1994 federal law mandating the involvement of local redevelopment authorities. The fate of the site remains undecided.

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