The House That Curtiss Built

Ask any number of people in Miami Springs about the Curtiss mansion and they will tell you, quite adamantly, that they are determined to do whatever is required to save the last surviving home of Glenn Curtiss. After all, Curtiss was the aviation giant who built the world's first "flying boat" airplane and whose company supplied most of the aircraft used by the U.S. military before and during World War I. He was also a pivotal figure in the early history of South Florida, having developed large sections of what are now Miami Springs, Opa-locka, and Hialeah with his partner, James H. Bright.

The two-story mansion, with fifteen rooms encompassing 5500 square feet, is significant in its own right. Built in 1925 as part of the Curtiss-Bright Company's development of Miami Springs (then called Country Club Estates), it incorporated a blend of Southwestern and Spanish architecture now known as Pueblo-Mission style. Today the estate is one of the few remaining examples of that style in Miami Springs.

Curtiss lived his final years in the mansion. After his death in 1930, the property passed first to his widow and later to hotel operators. Aware of the house's historic and architectural significance, members of the Miami Springs City Council, its historic preservation board, and its private historical society are all on record as saying it must be protected. But the structure, already scarred by years of neglect, is now threatened with demolition, and some citizens are accusing the city council of failing to take the necessary steps to save it.

Although the Miami Springs Historic Preservation Board designated the mansion a local historic landmark in 1987, its owner, Forte Hotels, Inc., has done little to keep it from falling into disrepair. Many of the building's windows are now boarded, and its glass front door is broken. A dilapidated entry hall leads through rusty gates of wrought-iron roses to a huge, forlorn east-wing living room. A stately banyan tree stands between the house and the eastern perimeter of the Miami Springs golf course. Curtiss used to populate the pond on the other side of the house with exotic birds, including flamingos and East African crowned cranes. Today the pond is full of weeds.

Located at 500 Deer Run in Miami Springs, the mansion sits on an 11.4-acre lot dotted with other structures, including an old hotel and several bungalows. Forte Hotels, the British company that owns Travelodge hotels, bought the entire property in the late 1960s, but over the years gradually stopped using the bungalows and other buildings to house and entertain guests. A restaurant, King Arthur's Court, which was added to the back of the mansion during better times, now looks no better than Camelot after the fall. But guests from the newer Travelodge across Fairway Drive will occasionally venture onto the property to use a swimming pool behind the old restaurant, maintained by the hotel for that purpose. Other visitors who come under cover of darkness don't care about the pool, or anything else on the property. Last month alone nine people were caught in the mansion and charged with trespassing and vandalism.

"The mansion is in bad shape," laments John Stadnik, chairman of the Miami Springs Historic Preservation Board, whose five members are appointed by the city council. "There's been a lot of vandalism the last three or four years, and the owners don't want to protect it. We want to do everything possible to save it because it was Curtiss's last home and it's a beautiful piece of property. But there's a lot of politics involved." Those politics center on a dispute between some members of the historical society and the city council.

Forte Hotels has been trying to sell the property for years. "The mansion is in ill repair, and we don't want to do the renovation," says Cheryl Chester, general manager of the Travelodge across the street from the property, just north of Miami International Airport. "Until very recently we were trying to sell this hotel and the property across the street as one package. But in the last several months we've been entertaining the idea of selling just the eleven acres together with the mansion."

And the City of Miami Springs has been entertaining the notion of buying it, but doing little else, according to Fred Suco, president of the Miami Springs Historical Society. Suco says the city has a clear mandate to purchase the mansion and surrounding property, appraised at one million dollars by a company working for the hotel chain. He points to a straw vote by Miami Springs residents during balloting this past April. The nonbinding measure asked voters to decide whether the city should be allowed to spend up to $1.2 million to purchase the property. They approved of the idea by a two-to-one margin.

Several members of the historical society complain that since the vote, the city council has refused to approach the hotel chain to make a bid on the property. Seeking some explanation for what he calls the council's "floundering," Suco zeroes in on the real estate activities of Mayor John Cavalier, Jr., elected again this year after serving four terms as Miami Springs mayor from 1979 to 1987. Cavalier works as a real estate broker for Zahn Realty, which as late as 1989 held the listing for the Curtiss mansion.

"Back then the hotel was trying to sell the property, and Zahn was the listing agent," says Suco. "All correspondence concerning the property was sent to Cavalier. At one point he represented a gentleman who made a bid."

Suco claims that Cavalier's role as a real estate broker who once tried to sell the Curtiss mansion should disqualify him from making any decision about its future. "Most people who would buy this property to build condos or townhouses don't want to deal with the mansion at all," Suco says. "And these are the people Cavalier has dealt with. If this property is sold on the open market, every real estate company, including the mayor's, will have a chance to get a piece of the action. That may be why the mayor is not exercising any leadership to save the mansion."

Cavalier admits he did once represent a potential buyer for the property, but he angrily rejects Suco's accusation of a conflict of interest. Although he still works for Zahn Realty, he says he no longer represents anyone seeking to purchase the mansion. "If I were involved in something like that, I would immediately remove myself from council deliberations on this issue," Cavalier stresses. "Even if I did earn a commission from the property's sale, I would donate it for a bicycle path or something like that. And make no mistake, my first priority and that of everyone else on the council is to save that mansion."

He explains the council's reluctance to bid on the property by noting that he and the four commissioners still have no idea how much the purchase would end up costing taxpayers. Not only will the mansion be taken off tax rolls, but there are financing and renovation costs to consider. "We just don't have all the information we need at this point," Cavalier adds.

Suco accuses the mayor of stonewalling. He maintains that the council does have the necessary information, including a cost study prepared for Travelodge by the engineering consulting firm of DeSimone Chaplin & Dobryn. The study, received by the council May 24, notes that the mansion is structurally sound and that repairs to roofing, windows, partitions, and walls will cost approximately $145,000. "This does not include repair costs of the electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems," the study continues. "Complete restoration costs will vary widely and depend on the level of finish desired. This cost may range from $200,000 to more than $1,000,000."

Miami Springs's assistant city attorney, Jan Seiden, sides with the mayor, saying that the price range for renovation should be narrowed before the city makes a bid for the property. But Seiden sees an even greater impediment to the city's quick purchase of the mansion and surrounding property. "Right now there is no consensus among council members on the key issue of how the property is going to be used," Seiden says. "Everybody seems to agree that the mansion would make a nice civic meeting hall, but Forte Hotels has made it clear they don't just want to sell the mansion separately. The city would have to acquire all eleven acres, and that raises the question about what to do with them. There is some sentiment for making the whole area a municipal complex. Other council members want the city to sell the property to developers and let them build low-density townhouses. But no two council members agree on any one plan. I can't see how the city can make a bid until this issue is resolved."

Suco says by that time the Curtiss mansion may be a memory. Accompanying the engineer's cost study of the mansion was a cover letter addressed to the city manager by one of Forte Hotels's lawyers. The letter indicates that the cost of renovating the building is too high for the hotel chain. "Based on the finding of this report, we will be submitting, within the near future, a request to the City of Miami Springs for a demolition permit in order that this unsafe structure can be removed," the letter states.

The city's preservation board can legally delay demolition for up to two years, but Seiden says the hotel chain could reduce that time to approximately six months by taking the city to court. Margot Ammidown, director of Dade County's Historic Preservation Division, emphasizes that South Florida's heritage is at stake. "The loss of this historically and structurally significant mansion would be tragic, not just for Miami Springs but for all of Dade County," she says.

Despite the letter's ominous message, city commissioners failed even to deliver it to the preservation board until two weeks ago. "It's just another delay," Suco grumbles. "And now the wrecking ball is ready to take its first swing.


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