A Dramatic Exit

County workers and preservationists do battle over the charred remains of the Calusa Playhouse

For such a tiny theater, the Calusa Playhouse boasts a long history. The 100-seat former coconut plantation dormitory, erected in 1917, is the second-oldest structure on Key Biscayne, after the Cape Florida Lighthouse. It has seen incarnations as a church, a hurricane shelter, and a school. For the past four decades it's been the home stage of the Key Biscayne Music and Drama Club, hosting more than 100 productions of community theater staples such as The Pirates of Penzance and The Sound of Music.

"We always enjoyed spending an evening there," recalls Peter Kory, a Key Biscayne resident and playhouse booster. "It was one of those little events. What do you use as a substitute? Sitting around a bar is one thing, but an evening at the theater is quite another. You develop a lot of affection for it."

The playhouse occupies a corner of Calusa Park, on the edge of Key Biscayne's city limits and within the boundary of the county's much larger Crandon Park. The small wood-frame building shares a clearing of mangrove forest with tennis courts, a playground, a parking lot, and a public restroom.

It has led a rough-and-tumble life. In the 1970s drama club members had to move the building to Calusa Park from another site to make way for the Royal Sheraton Biscayne Hotel. In 1995, just a week before a performance of Rebecca, county officials closed the building (which had been deeded to them by the drama club shortly after the relocation) because of faulty wiring and suspicions of lead-contaminated paint. A year later a fire (blamed on a group of kids) scorched the back and one side of the playhouse and destroyed an adjacent trailer. The playhouse had weathered so many hardships before the fire, always triumphing, that it came to be known as "the little theater that could."

Perhaps until now. Attempts by the county to restore the playhouse to its prefire health have resulted in the most significant setback in the theater's long history. County workers trying to stabilize the building discovered that damage from the fire -- to the roof, walls, and floor joists -- was much more extensive than anyone had thought. So great was the destruction that laborers tore down half of the building. The bureaucrat supervising the restoration wondered earlier this month if the playhouse is worth saving at all.

"My thinking was, when is a historic building no longer a historic building?" explains Frank Faragalli, executive assistant to the director of the county's Park and Recreation Department. "If all you have left is a couple of sticks, aren't you better off doing a total demolition and building a replica?"

Faragalli poured his concerns into a memo he sent on October 10 to Robert Carr, director of the Metro-Dade Historic Preservation Division. Carr and his crew responded with two trips to the playhouse site. While Carr easily verified that walls and the roof were missing, he couldn't inspect any of the reported damage because none of the removed wood remained on-site -- a "clear violation" of restoration guidelines.

"The bottom line," Carr wrote in a caustic memo to Faragalli, "is that the Calusa Playhouse will have to be repaired and reconstructed.... The present status of the building is unacceptable, and this Key Biscayne landmark has been grossly damaged."

Carr could not be reached for comment, but Faragalli allows that he failed to "sufficiently inform" Carr's office when he first discovered the extent of the damage. "What we did not do is stop the process and say, 'Wait a minute, let's call [Historic Preservation] back.' Instead we said 'Let's go ahead and proceed.' That was wrong."

This latest setback threatens to be the last. The playhouse is already doomed to move from Calusa Park within a year -- after the Crandon Park master plan has been adopted. The Matheson family (donors of the Crandon Park land) insisted on the removal of many park facilities as legal compensation for the county's construction of the Tennis Center at Crandon Park, used for the Lipton tournament. The playhouse is one of the structures that must go, though its final destination remains undecided. Drama club officials estimate that relocation could cost as much as one million dollars, money the club does not have. County officials decline to help pay for the move, except to a site that the club does not endorse.

The newfound damage to the building only compounds its uncertain future. Nevertheless, Faragalli says he met two weeks ago with members of the Historic Preservation Division and members of the Key Biscayne Music and Drama Club. Together they decided to finish the wall and roof, even though when construction is completed the building will still lack electricity and won't be up to fire safety code standards.

"It's a designated historic structure," offers the parks executive. "As the owner, the county has an obligation to try to protect that building and stabilize it to the best of its ability, given resources. Even if we wanted to demolish the building, we'd have to go back to the Historic Preservation people and ask for permission. Right at the moment, I don't think they'd want to do that.

 
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