There's a golden palace on Biscayne Bay. An imperial porte-cochère, vaulted ceilings, and grand fireplaces make the Miami Woman's Club one of the most elegant structures in the American Southeast. Taxpayers recently forked over almost $4 million to freshen up the 89-year-old Spanish Renaissance structure, which was among the first in Florida to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
But last month, control was quietly handed over to a company run by a Canadian tycoon. Soon, this onetime pantheon of culture will house, among other things, an enormous upscale restaurant.
Though backers say the deal will save the financially troubled club and complete the upgrade taxpayers began, critics disagree. They fear the Heafey Group, which owns a shopping center and condos next door, will desecrate the memory of the once-prominent Woman's Club. And they call the privatization of a public space an inglorious end to a proud tradition.
"What happened here is a horrible tragedy both for the Woman's Club and for Miami," says Kathryn Kassner, whose family was among the club's founders. "It's a mess, a complete shitshow."
The Married Ladies' Afternoon Club was organized in 1900, just four years after Miami was incorporated. With help from oil-and-railroad magnate Henry Flagler, it quickly became "the intellectual powerhouse behind Miami," says historian Paul George. Its Flagler Street headquarters were built in 1913.
Members started Miami's library system and pushed for parks when developers threatened to devour the city. They advocated for schools when education was a low priority and real estate a municipal obsession. They took the edge off Miami's hustle.
In 1926, the year the most powerful hurricane in area history decimated the city, they sold the downtown property and boldly dedicated a glorious five-story clubhouse overlooking Biscayne Bay near 17th Street. An early club vice president, Margaret Pace, led the movement to stop a developer from building next door. That property later became one of the region's top urban parks and was named in her honor.
"The club was really a major force in Miami history up until the modern period," George says, "the backbone of the city."
By the 1960s, however, the club's role in the city had declined. Though Miami High School held elegant cotillions there and other high-society events occasionally took place, the property was eventually leased to the International Fine Arts College, later the Art Institute's Miami International University of Art & Design, which vacated it in 2006.
A dispute followed, and the property was nearly sold. Battered by decades of salty winds and beaten up by thousands of students, the place fell into ruins. Concrete chunks dropped from the walls. Rusty rebar and exposed wires endangered the homeless who regularly broke in.
Then, in 2008, the county commission and the Miami Omni Community Redevelopment Agency agreed to help fix it up. Over the next three years, they gave the club $3.75 million for repairs. The club itself also raised money, albeit a much smaller amount.
Pieter Bockweg, executive director of the Miami CRA, declined to comment about the work but supplied a detailed breakdown. It shows about $1.8 million was slated for the exterior and the rest for fire safety, electrical issues, and planning. (The property is worth $14 million, county records show.) Asked how the CRA checked up on the work, Bockweg replied only the following in a prepared statement: "Ultimately, the building passed inspection."
Despite all of that taxpayer expense, a recent visit to the club revealed a disaster. The brown front lawn was strewn with faded postcards advertising a long-ago reggae show and wrappers from a nearby Checkers. Inside, though enormous windows revealed stunning views of Biscayne Bay and park land, ceilings crumbled over marble floors. Black and yellow graffiti covered pocked walls. Firehoses were unfurled.
That's the result of years of neglect and almost a decade of dissent among the club's administrators. The $3.75 million fixup was completed without a plan for finishing the interior — which architects estimate could cost another $8 million. Last year, a judge ordered the club to pay $650,000 to Beauchamp Construction, which did some of the work but wasn't paid.
The Woman's Club even lost its tax-exempt status several years ago because it failed to file necessary forms. This past April 15, five dissenting members called for the ouster of the board that has overseen the organization since 2006. "There are serious questions about whether this board can address the Club's dire financial circumstances," they wrote. "It is time for these entrenched directors to resign."
Marlene Erven, a nonprofit consultant and president of the Woman's Club of Coconut Grove, assembled a list of grievances. She contends the Miami Woman's Club board of nine years, led by Noreen Timoney, wife of a former Miami Police chief, has hidden financial records, held secret meetings, and systematically squeezed out people it doesn't like — turning down applications from at least 42 women. "They are in violation of their bylaws in so many ways that it is not even funny," Erven says. "The lack of any kind of financial oversight is very disturbing."
Timoney responds politely but forcefully that she has spent years cajoling, negotiating, and fundraising — contributing years of her life to the club without pay. The critics are simply malcontents who haven't had much to do with the club for a long time. Though she lives in the Grand Condominium next door to the Miami Woman's Club, she says that fact has nothing to do with the recently completed deal.
Timoney acknowledges mistakes in the past. The group indeed did not file papers necessary to retain its tax-exempt status — but that was a clerical error that will soon be corrected. She has won grants and re-energized an institution that was losing its relevance.
In past years, the group has invited important people such as former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno to speak at its events. Just in the past few months, the Woman's Club has gained new prominence. It's fighting human trafficking and domestic violence, among other issues. "We have moved this group beyond luncheons," Timoney says. "We have done more community service recently than we have done in years."
Of her critics, she adds: "All of these people stepped away when times were tough."
By far the biggest point of contention is the deal with the Heafey Group, which was announced June 23. Under its terms, Heafey — which is controlled by Quebecois real-estate magnate Pierre Heafey and owns a shopping center and dozens of units at the Grand Condominium — will receive a 35-year lease, renewable for up to 90 years, for three floors in the historic building.
The Heafey Group, which partnered with Jorge Pérez's Related Group after signing with the Woman's Club, will gain control of the first two floors, where a high-end restaurant will sublease, and the fourth floor, to be used for catered events. The club will have a cultural center on the third floor and offices on the more cramped fifth floor.
To gain control of so much pricey real estate, Heafey agreed to spend approximately $8 million. That sum will be used to renovate the interior and pay off Beauchamp. "Our goal is to rejuvenate the building," says Carmine Zayoun, the firm's vice president of acquisitions. "We want to put something in that building that the community can use."
Dissenting members complain the deal was rigged for Heafey and Related. Miami genius developer Avra Jain would have been a better choice, they say. Jain started a renaissance in the MiMo District by opening the Vagabond Hotel on Biscayne Boulevard. She submitted an innovative plan for the Miami Woman's Club.
Jain had hoped to name rooms after important women in Miami's history, such as Julia Tuttle, Mary Brickell, and Marjory Stoneman Douglas. A restaurant would have had gardens, and there would have been a floor of community space. "I was certainly disappointed that the Woman's Club did not pick a woman developer who has a reputation for thoughtful development in historically significant buildings," Jain says. "I was unfortunately very late to the process, as no one at the club informed me of the opportunity until the last hour."
Nancy Boggio, one of the dissidents, is blunter: "[The deal with Heafey] was ramrodded through," she says. "The whole things reeks."
Responds club president Timoney: "We looked at 25 different plans. It's been a long road."
In any case, it is a story too often told in Miami. History gets trumped by commercialism. Public space and community buildings are overtaken by the desire to make a buck off the waterfront or the Everglades. Long ago, when the public library system had more money and ambition, its leaders proposed a branch in the Woman's Club building. That never happened. It would have been a better choice than Heafey.
The partnership of Pierre Heafey's real-estate firm and Jorge Pérez's Related Group may have good intentions. I certainly believe that the women on both sides of the debate want to enrich Miami's burgeoning cultural scene.
But the most likely scenario is that the pretty palace by Biscayne's sparkling waters will end up selling expensive plates of food and later be sold like so much else in Miami. It should have been part of the city's legacy.
Last Thursday, I crashed a cocktail party to celebrate the Woman's Club deal. The soiree was held at the $220 million downtown art museum that bears Related Group CEO Pérez's name. It's just a couple of miles down the waterfront from the Woman's Club. On a beautiful third-floor veranda, about 100 politicians, developers, and attorneys munched on appetizers and sipped wine while a cool evening wind rolled off the water.
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Two women who asked not to be named discussed plans for the club.
"Doesn't Miami have enough restaurants that people can't afford?" one asked. "We need more public spaces!"
"We give up our history so quickly," the other added.