Cottage Beaten, Held for Ransom

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

In the Eighties the cottage served as an art studio, and then as a music classroom and band studio, hence its current moniker: the Band Cottage. But by 1994 it had fallen into disrepair. That year the board was developing big changes for the upper school that didn't necessarily include the cottage. A wish list assembled by the trustees in 1994 included a new science building for the Ransom Everglades Middle School, a fine arts studio, performing arts facilities, and an air conditioning plant for the upper school. The cottage was to be moved to make way for the new arts building, then repaired.

Villano wrote to then-head of school John Cotton: "To many of us in the extended Ransom Everglades community and throughout Coconut Grove, the prospect of any modification to this structure is quite disturbing.... Speaking as an alumnus, I feel strongly that Ransom Everglades' identifying strength rests heavily with tradition and continuity." Cotton wrote back, saying that the cottage was too small for the growing orchestral music program and "in rather bad shape: termite damage, dry rot, et cetera." He suggested that the board could afford $35,000 in repairs, but not more expensive historic preservation work.

"When you think of the fact that the function of that school is to do the very best job it can to prepare kids for lifelong learning, preserving the Band Cottage just wasn't carrying that much weight," recounts Cotton, now headmaster at Boca Raton Preparatory School.

Villano feared the trustees were preparing to renovate the cottage beyond recognition. Or perhaps they even had a secret plan to bulldoze it once the new construction began. "I thought it was reprehensible that the board was going to try to do it again," Villano fumes. He and Blanc rallied alumni to parley at the Pagoda with Cotton and other trustees in fall 1994. One alumna, Lolly Vieth, pledged several thousand dollars for the cottage restoration. All present -- trustees, alumni, and staff -- agreed to support historic preservation of the cottage. Or so the alumni thought.

"My understanding when we walked out of there was that the school officials knew that little cottage was one of the last remaining vestiges of the original campus and that we were really concerned about preserving it," recalls Tucker Gibbs, a 1972 grad and former Ransom teacher who attended the meeting. "We walked away saying 'Okay they're paying some respect and they understand our position. And at least before they do anything they're going to talk to us.'" Villano remembers it similarly: "We walked away from that meeting thinking our mission was accomplished."

Meanwhile the trustees set about raising the ten million dollars that the new buildings were expected to cost. Why not channel a fraction of that for the cottage? "It was difficult to get the board to dedicate the money needed to restore it," recounts Buermann, who was chairman of the board until this past June. "There were those who felt it should be saved and others who said, 'Gee it's an old ramshackle building. Why are we spending money to preserve that?'"

During the deliberation, several sources say, one trustee joshed that he would bring the gasoline if someone else would bring the matches. "There was a bit of joking about whether it was worthwhile, worth the trouble," admits Pinecrest Mayor Evelyn Greer, past chair of the board's building and grounds committee. "And about the fact that while it is certainly an old building, it is not a stunningly beautiful building. And that the shed of today will be the historic preservation building of the future. But nobody ever seriously opposed the preservation. Oh no." Greer says she "doesn't remember the slightest bit of controversy about it."

But current chairman of the board Barbara Havenick remembers differently. Havenick says some board members favored bulldozing the cottage. "The truth is, there were a few," she confesses. Her predecessor, Buermann, confirms her revelation. "Three or four of them really preferred to tear it down. And maybe three of us were concerned about saving it, and the rest were neutral," he recounts. Neither would reveal names, but Buermann offers clues about their identities: None is an alumnus and all have children attending the school.

Buermann says that the board's indifference compelled him to adopt a plan. Rather than restore the cottage to its original state, he proposed to renovate it. Cotton and the board's building and grounds committee chairman Joe Buchanan concurred. Buermann pitched the idea this past April, while he was still chairman.

"I wanted to get the thing rolling mainly because I realized once I left, the board members who would just as soon bulldoze it might prevail," Buermann says. "And I felt it best to do a basic clean-up restoration, get the building saved, get it preserved. Get it to a point where the school could actually use the building for something. Then over time, as money allowed, as additional funds were raised, they could go back in and do the full-blown historical treatment." Buermann contracted with Witters Construction to put on a new metal roof, repair the floor, replace window frames and jalousies, and install fire sprinklers. None of the trustees consulted with Villano, Ammidown, or any of the other concerned alumni. That laid the foundation for trouble.

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