The Hell with History

In 1925 a group of little old ladies got it into their bonneted heads that there was something special about an abandoned building near the mouth of the Miami River, something worth saving. Built nearly a century earlier by plantation owner William English, the single-story limestone-and-wood structure had served as the quarters for English's slaves. Later, during the Second and Third Seminole Wars, it was converted into army barracks.

The building's saviors, members of the Miami Women's Club and of the Daughters of the American Revolution, took an interest in the so-called Fort Dallas Barracks as plans materialized to build a hotel on the site. At the women's insistence, the structure was dismantled stone by stone and moved farther upriver to what is now Lummus Park on the western edge of downtown Miami.

And thus was born Dade County's historic-preservation movement.
Sadly, this prescient effort on the part of a group of pioneering women has been all but forgotten. So has the barracks, which stands as a ramshackle emblem of Dade's weak-willed efforts to keep alive its own history. Until a few years ago the local chapter of the DAR met within its walls, but by early 1991 the building had been so thoroughly pillaged by vandals -- the windows broken, the floor scattered with drug paraphernalia -- that the women moved their monthly rendezvous to safer quarters. Lummus Park was fenced in, its gates padlocked to keep visitors, especially homeless ones, from interfering with a perennially delayed renovation. As the City of Miami nears its centennial, Fort Dallas Barracks, one of Dade County's oldest buildings, is shut tight.

Inaccessible to the public and decrepit: Some preservation purists would say the barracks is as good as gone. But at least the building stands in some form, rendering it a salvageable piece of important history -- which is more than can be said for an untold number of other historic structures in Dade. The region's architectural legacy has almost completely disappeared, having been replaced by a blur of strip malls, high-rises, and condo complexes.

Historic buildings provide a community with tangible reminders of its past and contribute to the unique character of its neighborhoods. The absence of a recognizable sense of historical continuity is particularly notable in a place like Miami, where the populace is largely transient and composed of people from somewhere else. High-profile tourist attractions such as Villa Vizcaya and the Barnacle may grandly suggest how a handful of people once lived here. But solitary sites don't begin to capture a sense of Dade's complex evolution from a swamp to the burgeoning metropolis it is today. Perhaps it's not surprising that evidence of this area's prehistoric past has been virtually eradicated, but right now its recent history is slipping away fast. "When I came back to Miami fourteen years ago, I could still kind of feel the old Miami," notes local historian Paul George, a Miami native who left town in the late Sixties to go to college. "Now it's almost impossible to feel the structure of the early 1900s."

Admittedly, the preservationists' fight has always been somewhat of a losing battle throughout the nation, and successes in other, older cities (Charleston, Boston, San Francisco, New Orleans, to name just a handful) have been more visible in part because there was so much more to be saved. But at some level those communities recognized the spiritual and economic value of old buildings, a concept preservationists here have had a hard time selling to a community that is both young and a de facto unsupervised playground for rapacious entrepreneurs.

There's no measure of just how much history has been pulverized by development's wrecking ball. But in 1977 Dade County's Office of Community Development undertook a survey to inventory what was left. When the three-year effort was complete, workers had designated more than 6000 sites as historically noteworthy and had singled out about 800 as being especially significant. Since then, hundreds of the original 6000 have been demolished or altered beyond recognition of their historical worth; at least 80 of the 800 exceptional structures are gone, while scores more are threatened. Not surprisingly, the loss has occurred most grievously in areas of greatest neglect (the inner city) and areas of thickest development. But the bulldozers know no borders: Historic buildings have fallen all across Dade.

"Part of the problem is that it's a different set of values," comments Dorothy Fields, founder of the Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida. "There are people in the world who like new things. They think they're going to live forever. I just say, people who like new things never had grandparents around, never got a feel for time and mortality. The sooner you figure out we're only here for a season, the sooner you'll look for things to last."  

Who's to blame for the demise of Dade's architectural history? There are no solitary villains here: Responsibility is shared by several generations of avaricious developers, the myopic politicians who have supported them and fostered Dade's rapid growth, and an apathetic citizenry that by and large has demanded little sensitivity from its public leadership. "There's been a lot of shortsighted greed that's propelled this destruction," asserts Margot Ammidown, former director of the Dade County Historic Preservation Division.

The local ladies of the DAR notwithstanding, the term historic preservation didn't become part of the local vernacular until decades after the relocation of Fort Dallas Barracks. Throughout the century, building after building tumbled with barely a whimper of opposition. Through the years, Miami Herald headlines wistfully proclaimed "We Lose Another Marker" (the felling of a house at NE Third Avenue and First Street downtown) and "Landmark Is Coming Down" (the fall of developer and civic leader Thomas J. Pancoast's mansion in Miami Beach). In a March 1956 article, the Herald reported the demolition of Miami's first police station, which had been built downtown in about 1904: "The first sledgehammers and axes were swung by Mayor Robert High and the chairman of the off-street parking department," wrote the story's author, adding that the station, thought to be the oldest public structure in the area, had fallen into disrepair and was being knocked down to make room for a parking lot. Nowhere in this or any other article was there mention of any public or governmental outcry.

It fell, again, to a group of women to kick off the modern phase of Miami's preservation movement. The Villagers, as they were known, formed in the mid-1960s to save the Douglas Road entrance to Coral Gables and later became involved in preserving Villa Vizcaya and the Biltmore Hotel, among other buildings. In 1972 some Villagers formed the Dade Heritage Trust, a nonprofit civic organization that has become the county's largest and most outspoken preservation advocacy group.

Government was pitifully slow to catch on. Metro proceeded with its 1977 survey only after intense lobbying by preservationists. Led by Miami native and architecture scholar Ivan Rodriguez, staffers documented thousands of properties notable for their architectural, historical, and archaeological significance. Even as the researchers were compiling their logs, demolition continued. "You would prepare a form on a building and go back to photograph it and it was gone," Rodriguez remembers.

Supplied with the results of the survey, the county attorney's office drafted Metro's historic preservation ordinance. The law, which was enacted in 1981 and which protects a designated site from demolition unless its owner can successfully argue that the site is not historic or that it has "no reasonable economic use," invests the power of historic designation with a historic preservation board comprising historians, architects, developers, and other citizens. Thomas Logue, the lawyer who now handles preservation issues for the county attorney's office, says Metro's ordinance is among the strongest in the nation. (Buildings also may be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, affording them no protection from demolition unless they're publicly owned. For commercial buildings, the designation carries with it a federal income tax credit for the owner.)

The ordinance requires each Dade municipality to pass a preservation law and act on it, or to allow the county to assume jurisdiction over preservation matters. Only 9 of Metro's then-26 cities wrote their own ordinances, and several of those took advantage of the opportunity to dodge their responsibilities. The City of South Miami, for example, included a clause in its ordinance that permitted designation only with a property owner's consent. (When the county threatened to sue, the municipality removed the clause.)

Miami Beach, too, wrote in an owner-consent clause. "Miami Beach city officials were adamantly opposed to any type of historic preservation," recalls Rodriguez, the founding director of Dade's Historic Preservation Division (he left the post in 1990). "Hotel owners and merchants would show up en masse saying it would impede development." Metro filed suit against the city in 1984, forcing Miami Beach officials to rewrite their ordinance, which is now far stronger.

Though Hialeah passed its own preservation ordinance in 1982, for seven years its preservation board failed to designate any buildings, until Metro-Dade authorities threatened to sue.

But of all the municipalities that have disdained the notion of preservation in the decade and a half since the Metro legislation passed, the City of Miami has been the most consistent and egregious in its scorn. In 1990 Metro initiated the legal process for a lawsuit against Miami because the city's ordinance gave city commissioners, rather than the requisite quasi-independent board, the power to designate historic sites. "Despite community groups and staff recommendations, the commissioners wouldn't designate an awful lot," explains Thomas Logue. "There was a suggestion -- and this may shock you! -- that politics were involved." Though the commission finally moved to empower the Historic and Environmental Preservation Board, Miami's ordinance remains fundamentally weak: It fails to fully protect a historically designated building from demolition. The preservation board may stay demolition for only six months, at which point the owner can knock it down. Several historically designated buildings in Miami have fallen this way, including the Ryan Motors automobile showroom and the nationally designated Gesu School. (For descriptions of these and other sites that have been demolished or are teetering on the brink of demolition, see the sidebars that follow this story.) Logue calls the six-month stay provision "the Cinderella Pumpkin Ordinance" and is not shy about asserting that it should be eliminated. In his opinion, the Metro ordinance is a "minimum standard" -- much like the county's housing and environmental codes -- that requires municipalities to enact equally stringent laws. Unfortunately, the county's ordinance doesn't contain such specific language.  

Miami's virtually toothless preservation code is all the more galling because the city has the oldest history, the most to lose: Miami contains more historically designated sites (and more eligible but as-yet-undesignated sites) than any other Dade municipality, though much is invisible to the eyes of the citizenry, having been been obscured by alterations and neglect.

"Some people say if there had been good leadership in the City of Miami, there would have been a different conclusion," says Don Slesnick, a local attorney and past president of both the Dade Heritage Trust and the Dade County Historic Preservation Board.

Miami's lack of commitment to preservation is reflected in its staffing. When Sarah Eaton was hired as the city's historic and environmental preservation consultant in 1981, her office included a city planner for historic preservation issues and a part-time environmental preservationist. Now she's on her own, her duties split between environmental and historic-preservation affairs. (Metro-Dade, by contrast, employs a sizable preservation staff that includes a director, three historic-preservation specialists, and a clerical assistant. Among municipalities, Coral Gables's Historic Preservation Department director has an assistant and an administrative assistant.)

"It has totally slowed down the designation process," Eaton complains, adding that "several hundred, if not more" Miami properties deserve -- but haven't yet received -- historical designation. Eaton alone doesn't have the time to do the research and paperwork the designation process requires. Five years ago, she says, a comprehensive plan noted 113 Miami sites (including neighborhoods) as exceptionally significant. At the time, 81 of the sites already had been designated by the city's Historic and Environmental Preservation Board. But in the past five years, only a few of the remaining 32 properties have been designated, leaving the others totally unprotected.

Because most historic sites in the county are privately owned, private property owners often determine the fate of historic structures. Too often those whims are dictated by the unofficial South Florida development credo: Build new, build big, build now! "Miami has a development history built on hype and promotion on a grand scale, irrespective of other concerns like infrastructure and quality of life," complains Aristides Millas, an associate professor at the University of Miami's School of Architecture.

Preservation isn't always an easy proposition. It can be expensive and time-consuming. Moreover, it can require creativity, an attribute in short supply in the South Florida development community. Still, local preservationists have been struggling for years to introduce developers to the concept of "adaptive reuse." A number of such projects are under way in downtown Miami, including the conversion of the historic Olympia Building, which rises above Gusman Theater on Flagler Street, from offices to moderate-income apartments. On NE Fifth Street near the Miami Arena, what's left of the landmark Salvation Army Citadel will be incorporated into a new office building. And the U.S. Bureau of Prisons designed its new jail on North Miami Avenue around a block of pre-1920s commercial buildings -- the Chaille Block, as it's known -- converting them into offices.

But these instances are woefully sporadic, with developers blaming the exorbitant costs of preservation and the impracticality of adapting old structures for modern uses. "I think the proof is in the pudding," counters preservationist Don Slesnick. "I think as you visit attractive cities like Boston and San Francisco, if you take a look at the projects that have used the older buildings, it makes you see how adaptive reuse is valuable: Not only are they functional, they make the charm of the city stand out and draw people to them. Charm is not cold, steel, modern structures. Charm depends on the historic structures."

On several occasions, Slesnick says, he has opposed the Dade school board and county commissioners in their efforts to tear down historic buildings in the name of more efficient air-conditioning and traffic flow. "They want to build schools with no windows and big walls," Slesnick says, with no attempt to conceal his disdain. "Might as well send your kids to a jail."  

Many historic buildings have fallen victim to general neglect and abuse. "It's a way that developers and property owners have found to demolish properties without getting the bulldozers into it," observes Louise Yarbrough, director of the Dade Heritage Trust from 1991 until last year. "They can say it's too far gone so they can knock it down." According to Thomas Logue, the county attorney's office is considering the possibility of adding an "affirmative maintenance" provision to the county code, which would force owners of historically designated sites to maintain their properties.

Not that such a provision would be any kind of guarantee. Miami Springs has such a clause, but in at least one notable case city bureaucrats have managed to behave as though it didn't exist. The Pueblo Mission-style house that once belonged to aviation mogul Glenn Curtiss received local historic designation, but the structure's owners neglected it for years, and the city stood by while neighborhood kids used the abandoned building as a hangout and vandalized it. A year ago the house was torched by arsonists. It still has not been restored.

Inert officials and shortsighted developers -- these twin ills aren't likely to be cured soon in a region whose populace has no reason to care about its heritage. In a town that has always encouraged new arrivals to remake themselves, antiquity never stood much of a chance. Consequently the prevailing notion is that everything is expendable and nothing is supposed to last. "Miami being such a transient place, you don't build a loyal constituency for whom these properties have personal significance," comments the county's former preservation director Margot Ammidown.

Long-time preservation activist Nancy Liebman, now a member of the Miami Beach City Commission, identifies one disturbing characteristic that sets Miami apart from preservation-minded communities such as Charleston and New Orleans: a shared sense of self-respect. "These people realized right away that they liked their community," Liebman asserts. "The people there have enough pride to protect their community and not allow wholesale demolition to make downtown parking lots." (Dade residents tempted to theorize that a collective lack of pride is due to something in South Florida's water supply need only look a few miles northward to neighboring Fort Lauderdale, which by comparison seems history-obsessed.)

There have been moments in Dade's preservation history when the bonding force of shared experience has won the day, or at least eked out a partial victory. The fight to save the old Edison High School (now Miami Edison Middle School) on NW Second Avenue at 62nd Street is an example. "We were dealing with so many people who have memories of that site," recalls historian Arva Moore Parks. When former Edison students comprising a multiethnic cross-section of Miami banded together to protest the school board's planned demolition, the board ultimately was moved to save some of the building's historic features, including its gymnasium and theater.

Revealingly, the most successfully fought preservation battles have been waged by communities. Also in Miami, grassroots efforts in the neighborhoods of Buena Vista, Morningside, and Bayside all have resulted in historic-district designation, requiring that proposals to alter the exterior of any building within the district A even a building that hasn't been deemed historically significant A be approved by Miami preservation chief Sarah Eaton or by the Historical and Environmental Preservation Board. (Demolition, however, still cannot be prevented.)

But such accomplishments are attained only when neighborhoods take the trouble to rally. Eaton says several neighborhoods in Coconut Grove are "definitely eligible" for historic designation, if only residents would bother to ask for it. The same is true of neighborhoods near SW Eighth Street such as Shenandoah and Riverside, communities that have been around since early this century and that are rich in Cuban immigrant history. "The only way it works is if the neighborhoods support it," Eaton explains. "That's what I ask for, given the lack of staff, time, and resources, and given my experience in historic districts elsewhere."

As long as local residents fail to take responsibility for preserving Dade's past, vital elements of that legacy -- the "grandparents" Dorothy Fields so highly values -- will continue to be irretrievably lost. In response to the transient's excuse ("Miami's history is somebody else's, not mine; I just got here"), the preservationist's argument is that adopted grandparents are better than none at all.

"What Dade has done is rape its history," laments Aristides Millas. "It'll never become a great city when we erase its history.  

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