By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Terrence McCoy
By Michael E. Miller
By Kyle Munzenrieder
By Michael E. Miller
The local ladies of the DAR notwithstanding, the term historic preservation didn't become part of the local vernacular until decades after the relocation of Fort Dallas Barracks. Throughout the century, building after building tumbled with barely a whimper of opposition. Through the years, Miami Herald headlines wistfully proclaimed "We Lose Another Marker" (the felling of a house at NE Third Avenue and First Street downtown) and "Landmark Is Coming Down" (the fall of developer and civic leader Thomas J. Pancoast's mansion in Miami Beach). In a March 1956 article, the Herald reported the demolition of Miami's first police station, which had been built downtown in about 1904: "The first sledgehammers and axes were swung by Mayor Robert High and the chairman of the off-street parking department," wrote the story's author, adding that the station, thought to be the oldest public structure in the area, had fallen into disrepair and was being knocked down to make room for a parking lot. Nowhere in this or any other article was there mention of any public or governmental outcry.
It fell, again, to a group of women to kick off the modern phase of Miami's preservation movement. The Villagers, as they were known, formed in the mid-1960s to save the Douglas Road entrance to Coral Gables and later became involved in preserving Villa Vizcaya and the Biltmore Hotel, among other buildings. In 1972 some Villagers formed the Dade Heritage Trust, a nonprofit civic organization that has become the county's largest and most outspoken preservation advocacy group.
Government was pitifully slow to catch on. Metro proceeded with its 1977 survey only after intense lobbying by preservationists. Led by Miami native and architecture scholar Ivan Rodriguez, staffers documented thousands of properties notable for their architectural, historical, and archaeological significance. Even as the researchers were compiling their logs, demolition continued. "You would prepare a form on a building and go back to photograph it and it was gone," Rodriguez remembers.
Supplied with the results of the survey, the county attorney's office drafted Metro's historic preservation ordinance. The law, which was enacted in 1981 and which protects a designated site from demolition unless its owner can successfully argue that the site is not historic or that it has "no reasonable economic use," invests the power of historic designation with a historic preservation board comprising historians, architects, developers, and other citizens. Thomas Logue, the lawyer who now handles preservation issues for the county attorney's office, says Metro's ordinance is among the strongest in the nation. (Buildings also may be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, affording them no protection from demolition unless they're publicly owned. For commercial buildings, the designation carries with it a federal income tax credit for the owner.)
The ordinance requires each Dade municipality to pass a preservation law and act on it, or to allow the county to assume jurisdiction over preservation matters. Only 9 of Metro's then-26 cities wrote their own ordinances, and several of those took advantage of the opportunity to dodge their responsibilities. The City of South Miami, for example, included a clause in its ordinance that permitted designation only with a property owner's consent. (When the county threatened to sue, the municipality removed the clause.)
Miami Beach, too, wrote in an owner-consent clause. "Miami Beach city officials were adamantly opposed to any type of historic preservation," recalls Rodriguez, the founding director of Dade's Historic Preservation Division (he left the post in 1990). "Hotel owners and merchants would show up en masse saying it would impede development." Metro filed suit against the city in 1984, forcing Miami Beach officials to rewrite their ordinance, which is now far stronger.
Though Hialeah passed its own preservation ordinance in 1982, for seven years its preservation board failed to designate any buildings, until Metro-Dade authorities threatened to sue.
But of all the municipalities that have disdained the notion of preservation in the decade and a half since the Metro legislation passed, the City of Miami has been the most consistent and egregious in its scorn. In 1990 Metro initiated the legal process for a lawsuit against Miami because the city's ordinance gave city commissioners, rather than the requisite quasi-independent board, the power to designate historic sites. "Despite community groups and staff recommendations, the commissioners wouldn't designate an awful lot," explains Thomas Logue. "There was a suggestion -- and this may shock you! -- that politics were involved." Though the commission finally moved to empower the Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, Miami's ordinance remains fundamentally weak: It fails to fully protect a historically designated building from demolition. The preservation board may stay demolition for only six months, at which point the owner can knock it down. Several historically designated buildings in Miami have fallen this way, including the Ryan Motors automobile showroom and the nationally designated Gesu School. (For descriptions of these and other sites that have been demolished or are teetering on the brink of demolition, see the sidebars that follow this story.) Logue calls the six-month stay provision "the Cinderella Pumpkin Ordinance" and is not shy about asserting that it should be eliminated. In his opinion, the Metro ordinance is a "minimum standard" -- much like the county's housing and environmental codes -- that requires municipalities to enact equally stringent laws. Unfortunately, the county's ordinance doesn't contain such specific language.