Cottage Beaten, Held for Ransom

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

Meanwhile construction of the three new masonry buildings proceeded. The trustees hoped for an October 1998 opening. They would finally be able to escape the cramped and antiquated art and music classrooms. Students would finally leave what they call "the dungeon," the dank basement of the math-science building where painting and sculpture classes are held. They would no longer spin pots in a ceramics studio located underneath the school's outdoor, Olympic-sized pool in a caged-in, cavelike space that was designed for storage.

The cottage had been the scene of freshmen music courses and practice sessions until the end of the 1995-96 school year. Then it was unused. "It was nice but rather uncomfortable. Everywhere you looked, there were termites," remembers eighteen-year-old Justin Marks, now a senior and editor of the school's yearbook. "There were a lot of holes in the walls with bugs coming out of them. It was not air-conditioned. It was very, very cramped with the amount of students in the class. It was just hard to learn in that environment."

Still, Marks favors keeping it around, though he's not too exacting about the historical detail. "The whole point is the building rather than this roof tile or that carpeting or that door," he asserts. "It's the idea of the building more than the actual door that came with it. But definitely you're not going to want to put on metal doors, and metal windows, and start plastering the walls."

The trustees weren't concerned with historic details, either, as Villano discovered on his way to lunch this past August.

Buchanan, a lawyer who has two kids at Ransom Everglades, says he wanted the cottage spiffed up for the inauguration of the new buildings. He has little regret that Villano and other alumni were out of the loop. "Those guys may have had some other thoughts, but ultimately somebody's got to make a decision and say 'Go.'"

That is until somebody else says "stop," as head of school Judy Chamberlain did that fateful August day. Then the board turned over the cottage matter to Chamberlain, who assembled a committee that includes Villano, Ammidown, and several other alumni. They are awaiting Ceo's submission of a proposal for restoring the cottage to a close approximation of its original state. But like the trustees, Chamberlain downplays the cottage controversy. "It didn't capture the imagination of everyone in the same way," she says coyly.

Alumnus Tucker Gibbs is more outspoken about the board's and Cotton's failure to inform the alumni. "That showed an absolute lack of respect for the honest feelings of the people who were at that [Pagoda] meeting," he says.

"I guess I should have assumed they would want some say," says Cotton. He admits opposing alumni proposals for historic preservation: "Some of the alumni somehow had the idea that we would restore it to its original condition. There was some resistance to that, and I must admit that I was part of it." Then he seems to contradict himself: He says he thought the alumni would accept a less meticulous restoration. "To my knowledge their interest was ours. Let's keep the building together. Let's move it over here and we'll basically use it as we've been using it. Make the outside look not quite as seedy, and structurally sound, replace what's rotted."

Building and grounds chairman Buchanan has a similar argument. "We thought we were incorporating their concepts and in fact we did incorporate the [concept of] 'let's preserve the building versus knock it down,'" he insists. "In hindsight, I'm the one who should have been hearing from them. They never talked to me. If you put Villano in a lineup, I couldn't pick him out. I don't know the man. And he never bothered to come to me and say, 'Hey these are our concerns.'"

Villano insists telling Cotton and Buermann was good enough. "What should I have contacted Buchanan for, to bring the matches?" he seethes.

During a recent trip to the cottage, at New Times' request, architect Luigi Vitalini ascends the three wooden steps to the door, twists the new silver elongated handle -- a far cry from doorknobs of yore -- and pulls. The door barely opens before the top corner rams against the four-inch side of a two-by-four that someone has nailed to the eaves.

To get through the tight doorway, Vitalini has to turn sideways. Once inside he points to openings between the plywood on the roof. "The [construction workers] should have slowly replaced what was damaged with similar materials," Vitalini chides. "Now it's getting trashed because it rains in here."

Architect Rocco Ceo also laments the damage. In addition to the rare Dade County pine, Ceo says, the cottage also has some unique details. For example, one window sash disappears down into the wall. Another slides horizontally. "[Ransom] was not an architect, but at the same time he had some skill, some originality in the way that he conceived the building," Ceo notes.

For Ceo the cottage, like any structure built by Miami's first settlers, is also important to preserve because it provides a link to a long-vanished landscape. "Early pioneers built with the materials on hand. They built with oolitic rock (coral rock), they built with Dade County pine, they built with live oak, or cypress if that was available. As the landscape was transformed through agriculture and the creation of cities, the buildings became a kind of representation of that material. And so when you lose those structures, you lose all connection to the land. Obviously the building is very different. It's an abstraction of the landscape, but it's still part of it."

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