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.

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.

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.

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."

Since Villano's intervention board members insist they have circled the wagons around the cottage. "I think it is always nice to bring the past together with the present. We have a hundred-year history and in Miami that's a very long history. It will be nice to see it preserved," says board chairman Barbara Havenick, who has two kids enrolled at the school. She is not an alumna, but has a brother who attended Ransom before it merged with Everglades.

Would she have been satisfied with the halfway repair suggested by Buermann? "You're not going to get me to answer that," she says with a giggle, but then responds anyway. "I would have supported what the board decided."

While the cottage failed to inspire the trustees, the construction boom is all the rage. "It's exciting to be a part of all the building and opportunities for new types of learning," Havenick raves. "The new high-tech performing arts building "is going to take us into the next century. We're doing things we wouldn't have thought about five years ago," she marvels. "It's amazing what's required for education now." Then she hints: "We love to see positive articles coming out about the school, because it's a really positive place where lots of good things are happening."

Adds Joe Buchanan: "Have you seen how much we are doing? In two and a half years we've done seven construction projects."

For Tucker Gibbs the trashing of the cottage was to be expected. "The bottom line in any board of trustees is 'I want to build monuments. I'm the board of trustees. On my watch I want to have more buildings with great plaques and raise more money.' There's nothing sexy to a school about a building like that cottage." Indeed, the parents association, not the trustees, came through with about $35,000 to help fund preservation of the cottage.

Six months after bringing the cottage repair job to a halt, Villano is impatient but optimistic. "I want people a hundred years from now to say, 'Thank God someone was smart enough to preserve this building.' But he doubts the trustees have gained any respect for the idea. "The board said it didn't have enough money, even though they're spending millions of dollars on new classrooms!" he sputters. "The tragedy is not that small number of people wanted to tear it down, but that a large number of people didn't care about it."

Ammidown remains vexed. "The board of trustees has been haphazard and reckless about this whole process when they knew that there was a very strong contingent of people who have wanted to save this building and pledged to cooperate," she chides. "I just think they need to move this along. The longer they delay it, the more it starts to look like a deliberate tactic to let the building deteriorate."

Trustee Buchanan still doesn't understand the commotion. "It was moved at considerable expense and now they're going through the rigmarole of trying to make sure that the preservation work is done," he huffs.

Show Pages
 
My Voice Nation Help
0 comments
 
Miami Concert Tickets
Loading...