Cottage Beaten, Held for Ransom

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

A rare combination of adventure, desire to teach, and ailing kidneys brought Paul Ransom to Florida in 1892. A 30-year-old Harvard graduate with a law degree from Columbia University, Ransom was a lawyer in Buffalo, New York when his doctors ordered him to winter in a warm climate to prolong his life. Soon he traveled to Florida. After a stop in Palm Beach, Ransom headed south to Coconut Grove, where he met author Kirk Munroe. Munroe and his wife Mary eventually sold Ransom seven-and-a-half acres of bayside property to the south of the Scrubbubs, their house. A neighbor to the north was Ralph Munroe (no relation to Kirk), who owned the Barnacle.

Parking was not a concern when Ransom established the Pine Knot Camp on the grounds where Ransom Everglades is located today, but virtuous principles were. In 1896 Ransom began to tutor wealthy boys from New England; he had taught five students the first year. Sailing, Bible study, and "the benefit of an outdoor life," were mainstays of Ransom's pedagogy. "They had to fire shotguns to call in the students," says English teacher Dan Leslie Bowden.

In 1903 Ransom married Alice Carter, daughter of the president of Williams College. The couple soon worked out a deal with the Adirondack School, an elite boarding academy in the mountains of upstate New York. Pine Knot Camp became the site of a winter program and the Adirondack-Florida School was born. Ransom built a bayside schoolhouse, several cottages, and the Pagoda.

Fifty-five years before President Kennedy requested, in his 1961 inaugural address, that Americans "ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country," Ransom uttered a similar entreaty. In a 1906 letter to prospective students, he wrote: "The people in this world may be divided roughly into three classes, according to their attitude toward life. The people in the first class believe, or seem to believe, that they were put into the world to see how much they can get out of it.... The second class is made up of those who do not give life any thought at all -- who do not like to think very deeply of anything.... The people of the third class believe that they are in the world not so much for what they can get out of it as for what they can put into it."

When Ransom died from kidney disease in 1907 at age 44, Alice took charge and appointed the school's first headmaster, Livings Somers. For the next 23 years, Mrs. Ransom managed the school. A 1926 article in the Miami Herald proclaimed the founder's ideals were intact. It quoted Somers: "The Adirondack-Florida School plans to give every youngster under its charge all the advantages of living in the open."

In South Florida living in the open has its perils, of course. The unnamed hurricane of 1926, with its 130 mile-per-hour winds, demolished the school's bayside classrooms and boathouse. Nearly all the pine trees were leveled, too. Other structures survived, including the Pagoda and the cottage, which served as an infirmary. In the spirit of Ransom's altruism, alumni sent copious funds to reconstruct the campus. A two-story, nine-room schoolhouse was completed at water's edge by late 1927.

After Alice Ransom died in 1935, a board of trustees assumed control of the school. It was shut down by the trustees during World War II, and it reopened in 1947 with a mere nine students. But business was slow, so the board voted to separate from the Adirondack School and hold classes year-round. And they came up with a new name: The Ransom School. By then the cottage had another use, serving as headmaster D. Pierre G. Cameron's residence.

As Miami grew so did the school. By the end of the Sixties storms, fires, or construction workers had destroyed most of the original wood-frame structures. Again, only the cottage and the Pagoda survived. The school took on a new look. Bunkerlike, concrete-block buildings and stone edifices with breezeways dominated the campus. The trusty cottage was once again used as the headmaster's quarters.

Throughout its architectural metamorphosis, the school's philosophical foundation endured, says Bowden, age 70, who began instructing at the school in 1955. "We have always tried, especially with children who have so much in the way of advantage and opportunity, to teach them to give and to contribute."

The cottage survived intact during the Seventies, but there were rumblings about demolishing its centurylong companion, the Pagoda.

Bulldozers were ready to topple the Pagoda in the early Seventies. Student Giulio Blanc, who died in 1995, rallied fellow classmates and teachers to appeal to the board. Blanc and his allies prevailed and the school raised tens of thousands of dollars for a historic restoration of the structure, which is now on the National Register of Historic Sites. Eric Buermann, a 1969 Ransom graduate who was president of three alumni association at the time, recalls the episode this way: "There was a group who had no real ties to the building and would just as soon have bulldozed it. They didn't want to waste time talking, restoring, or raising money." Two decades later, as board chairman, Buermann would find that those words applied to the Pagoda's little sister, the cottage.

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