The Hell with History

Dade's Architectural history tumbles toward extinction

In 1925 a group of little old ladies got it into their bonneted heads that there was something special about an abandoned building near the mouth of the Miami River, something worth saving. Built nearly a century earlier by plantation owner William English, the single-story limestone-and-wood structure had served as the quarters for English's slaves. Later, during the Second and Third Seminole Wars, it was converted into army barracks.

The building's saviors, members of the Miami Women's Club and of the Daughters of the American Revolution, took an interest in the so-called Fort Dallas Barracks as plans materialized to build a hotel on the site. At the women's insistence, the structure was dismantled stone by stone and moved farther upriver to what is now Lummus Park on the western edge of downtown Miami.

And thus was born Dade County's historic-preservation movement.
Sadly, this prescient effort on the part of a group of pioneering women has been all but forgotten. So has the barracks, which stands as a ramshackle emblem of Dade's weak-willed efforts to keep alive its own history. Until a few years ago the local chapter of the DAR met within its walls, but by early 1991 the building had been so thoroughly pillaged by vandals -- the windows broken, the floor scattered with drug paraphernalia -- that the women moved their monthly rendezvous to safer quarters. Lummus Park was fenced in, its gates padlocked to keep visitors, especially homeless ones, from interfering with a perennially delayed renovation. As the City of Miami nears its centennial, Fort Dallas Barracks, one of Dade County's oldest buildings, is shut tight.

Inaccessible to the public and decrepit: Some preservation purists would say the barracks is as good as gone. But at least the building stands in some form, rendering it a salvageable piece of important history -- which is more than can be said for an untold number of other historic structures in Dade. The region's architectural legacy has almost completely disappeared, having been replaced by a blur of strip malls, high-rises, and condo complexes.

Historic buildings provide a community with tangible reminders of its past and contribute to the unique character of its neighborhoods. The absence of a recognizable sense of historical continuity is particularly notable in a place like Miami, where the populace is largely transient and composed of people from somewhere else. High-profile tourist attractions such as Villa Vizcaya and the Barnacle may grandly suggest how a handful of people once lived here. But solitary sites don't begin to capture a sense of Dade's complex evolution from a swamp to the burgeoning metropolis it is today. Perhaps it's not surprising that evidence of this area's prehistoric past has been virtually eradicated, but right now its recent history is slipping away fast. "When I came back to Miami fourteen years ago, I could still kind of feel the old Miami," notes local historian Paul George, a Miami native who left town in the late Sixties to go to college. "Now it's almost impossible to feel the structure of the early 1900s."

Admittedly, the preservationists' fight has always been somewhat of a losing battle throughout the nation, and successes in other, older cities (Charleston, Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, to name just a handful) have been more visible in part because there was so much more to be saved. But at some level those communities recognized the spiritual and economic value of old buildings, a concept preservationists here have had a hard time selling to a community that is both young and a de facto unsupervised playground for rapacious entrepreneurs.

There's no measure of just how much history has been pulverized by development's wrecking ball. But in 1977 Dade County's Office of Community Development undertook a survey to inventory what was left. When the three-year effort was complete, workers had designated more than 6000 sites as historically noteworthy and had singled out about 800 as being especially significant. Since then, hundreds of the original 6000 have been demolished or altered beyond recognition of their historical worth; at least 80 of the 800 exceptional structures are gone, while scores more are threatened. Not surprisingly, the loss has occurred most grievously in areas of greatest neglect (the inner city) and areas of thickest development. But the bulldozers know no borders: Historic buildings have fallen all across Dade.

"Part of the problem is that it's a different set of values," comments Dorothy Fields, founder of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida. "There are people in the world who like new things. They think they're going to live forever. I just say, people who like new things never had grandparents around, never got a feel for time and mortality. The sooner you figure out we're only here for a season, the sooner you'll look for things to last."

Who's to blame for the demise of Dade's architectural history? There are no solitary villains here: Responsibility is shared by several generations of avaricious developers, the myopic politicians who have supported them and fostered Dade's rapid growth, and an apathetic citizenry that by and large has demanded little sensitivity from its public leadership. "There's been a lot of shortsighted greed that's propelled this destruction," asserts Margot Ammidown, former director of the Dade County Historic Preservation Division.

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