Cottage Beaten, Held for Ransom

How some of Miami's brightest lights nearly trashed a piece of local history

The little green wooden cottage near Biscayne Bay survived thrashings from the mighty hurricanes of 1926, 1935, and 1992. But starting in fall 1997, human forces accomplished what the storms could not: A construction crew up and moved the one-story, pitch-roofed bungalow a few hundred feet to a new resting place. By the time relocation was complete, workers had reduced one part of the structure to a pile of old lumber. Some time after that, they cut a gaping hole in its side and installed a large air conditioner.

The cottage sat unused for months until this past summer, when workers began yanking rare planks of Dade County pine from the roof and replacing them with plywood. They also hung a door, circa 1998, in the main entryway and nailed two-by-fours under the eaves. Then, one Wednesday in August 1998, Ransom graduate David Villano walked by on his way to a lunch meeting.

He was aghast.
"When I got there they were ripping the fucking roof off!" Villano says, still amazed. "They ripped out two of the sash windows and just threw them away!" Villano was with a friend, architect Luigi Vitalini. Although Villano ran off to get help, Vitalini feared it was too late to rescue one of Miami-Dade County's oldest standing buildings.

Since it was hammered together nearly a century ago, the cottage has stood on the lush and breezy bayside campus of Ransom Everglades Upper School, which sprawls across several acres between Main Highway and Biscayne Bay in Coconut Grove. The school is among the most important places in Miami-Dade history. Students, teachers, and alumni all take pride in its storied past. Illustrious people have attended or sent their kids there. The children of philanthropist Shepard Broad, one of the founders of Israel, attended. So did Paul Wolfson, whose family is among the county's most generous donors. Harry Anderson, former New York Yacht Club commodore, is an alumnus just like his father, who nearly a century ago was among the school's the first students.

Although not as glamorous as landmarks like Vizcaya or the nearby Barnacle historic site, the cottage is one of only two vestiges of the school's original array of wood-frame buildings. Historians date it to 1906, just ten years after the City of Miami was incorporated. Near the cottage is a two-story wood house named the Pagoda, built by school founder Paul Ransom in 1902 and placed on the National Register of Historic Sites in 1973. Both are constructed of Dade County pine. The region was once covered with stands of this hardy tree, but lumber companies rendered it virtually extinct decades ago.

Margot Ammidown, former director of the county's historic preservation office, calls the cottage an important relic from another era. "Coconut Grove has its own unique architectural tradition, basically a wood-frame, craftsman style that was not built in many other places in the county," explains Ammidown, an alumna of the Everglades School for Girls, which merged with the Ransom School in 1974. "The cottage is significant for this and also for its Dade County pine wood."

In construction-crazed South Florida, developers have routinely razed unique structures to make way for the tide of parking lots, office buildings, stripmalls, and Mediterranean-tiled stucco homes that has swept the region. Although this has happened throughout the area, it seems unimaginable at Ransom Everglades, where historical awareness is a foundation of the curriculum and tuition costs about $13,000 per year. Moreover, some of the county's most venerated minds are on the school's 30-member board of trustees, including former Miami Herald publisher David Lawrence, Citibank International chairman Carlos Palomares, Pinecrest Mayor Evelyn Greer, and Flagler Dog Track owner Barbara Havenick. If anyone grasped the importance of historic preservation, it would be this group. Right?

Maybe not.
When Villano, who has coached soccer at the school for the past fifteen years, returned to the scene of the cottage crime that August day, head of school Judy Chamberlain followed him. They planned to discuss preservation of the cottage over lunch. Chamberlain, who had been on the job for only a month, was not privy to her predecessor's plans for it. She told the workers to stop work. Six months later a leaky blue tarp remains on the roof.

"There's been a series of [bad] decisions regarding use of that building, unfortunately," observes Rocco Ceo, a Miami architect who specializes in historic preservation. "I don't know who made them. I probably don't want to know. But generally speaking, people who cared about the building wouldn't have done those things." Take the idea of installing air conditioning, for instance. "It looks horrible," Ceo critiques. "It has to be taken off."

Then there are the iron mounts placed beneath the cottage during the move. They will eventually cause the wood to rot, Ceo notes. Every time it rains, the cottage moves toward a slow, musty doom. "There are some bad things going on with that building. It's been beat up pretty bad," says Ceo.

"It was kind of supervised neglect," confesses former head of school John Cotton. Some trustees downplay the debate while others deny there was a controversy. The saga of the cottage is a lesson in how even the county's best and brightest could become caught up in the region's penchant for erasing history.

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