By Michael E. Miller
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By David Villano
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Parker is not the first member of his family to dedicate himself to a grandiose idea. His grandfather John Gifford established one of this country's first nature preserves (in upstate New York) and applied botany to fighting poverty. His grandmother Martha Gifford was a missionary in India, a Coconut Grove teacher, and a poet. His mother Martha Melahn is a historical novelist. His father Alfred Browning Parker created an idiosyncratic style of architecture that earned him praise as a subtropical Frank Lloyd Wright. Robin is determined to make his mark in energy storage. “Our family has always been interested in not just the environment but in the ecology of things and the relationship of all things,” proclaims Alfred, an 83-year-old professor of architecture at the University of Florida. “And that goes back to Robin's grandfather.”
Grandpa Gifford was a botanist who received a Ph.D. in ecology from a university in Munich, Germany in the late 1800s and later became one of the first Americans to receive a doctorate in forestry from a U.S. institution. In the early 1900s Gifford helped establish the University of Miami's School of Tropical Forestry. Alfred became interested in one of Gifford's ideas while on sabbatical in Mexico in the Thirties. He was captivated by Gifford's concept of tropical subsistence homesteads, in which agriculture and architecture were connected. Specifically the old man talked about affordable houses built with native materials and surrounded by edible plants such as mangos, bananas, and avocados.
Upon Alfred's return from Mexico some 60 years ago, he paid a visit to the Gifford homestead on SW 27th Avenue in the Grove. The young architect and the botanist were conversing in the large living room (it had seven sofas) when Martha entered. She was just seventeen. “I went into the room and Alfred asked me: “So, what high school do you go to?'” she recalls. “And I said, “I'm just about to graduate from the University of Miami.'” Alfred liked her intelligence but admits other aspects also attracted him. “A young, buxom seventeen-year-old? Who wouldn't be attracted?” he chuckles. The two married later that year and renovated a small house on the Gifford estate. Inspired by his father-in-law, Alfred designed a generic plan for low-cost homes that would sit on five-acre lots. “The idea was that you would live from the land,” he says. “You could build it very inexpensively using coral rock, native pine, and so on.”
The third of five children, Robin was born in 1946. “Robin was just about as difficult a child as you could imagine,” Martha says. “Robin just has an incredible drive and an awful lot of energy. And he had an awful lot of this when he was fifteen months old.” He was not an especially good student, she adds, but he absorbed his parents' passion for housebuilding. Alfred and Martha built three homes in Miami, working nights and on weekends. Twice, just as they neared completion and were making plans to move in, admirers made offers the Parkers couldn't refuse. And so they began the process again.
“[Alfred] Parker is part of that generation of architects that firmly believed in all the things that [Frank Lloyd] Wright espoused: pursuit of beauty and unity in architecture,” says Rocco Ceo, an architecture professor at UM. “They had a strong understanding of the nature of building materials and placed value on craftsmanship. Wood and stone were important elements. These architects viewed buildings as part of a natural environment. Interior and exterior spaces have to be connected. There's not a clear separation between inside and outside.”
Martha was unconventional in her attitude toward marriage. In 1954 Alfred wanted to settle into a large house he designed. (It still stands on Royal Road in Coconut Grove.) House Beautiful magazine had sponsored the construction. But Martha, then 28, wanted to keep building. The idea of becoming a homemaker profoundly bored her. “The marriage kind of came to an end with House Beautiful photographing the last home we built,” she attests. “As far as I was concerned, that was the end.” Her decision to leave was determined by a combination of things. Child fatigue: “You know, the household drag of [raising] five children.” Wanderlust: “My mother and father were world travelers, and I had been brought up in a family that could talk about Shepherd's Hotel in Cairo just as easily as the Biltmore in Miami. And I had never done any traveling whatsoever and felt incredibly ignorant because of this.” Fear of a race war: “I thought that in Coconut Grove the blacks were going to burn us out and burn us down, and I could well understand why.”
She bolted across the Atlantic while the kids stayed behind with Alfred. “I went to Europe and I said, “This is what I want my children to see and experience.' I loved the food, I loved everything about this, and I was going to bring my children back.” After traveling for a year she returned to the United States, picked up the kids, and relocated them to Switzerland. She enrolled them in boarding schools near the town of Bex on Lake Geneva. But Martha was off again soon, this time to Monte Carlo, where she accepted a job as secretary to the president of Joy Manufacturing, a mining equipment maker. She commuted back and forth by train. “Robin got a wonderful foundation [of learning] from his father. But moving to Europe opened up the world to him,” Martha says. In 1956 she divorced Alfred, then continued her wandering, working as a stringer for United Press International throughout Europe and later marrying a photographer.