Stiltsville Could Become an Artists' Village, With Knight Arts Challenge Support

The problem with hosting an artists' residency aboard a pool noodle in the middle of the ocean is that the sculptors are going to sink and the painters are going to whine about their canvas getting wet.

But if the Stiltsville Trust has its way, the seven remaining houses of the Stiltsville community perched amid Biscayne Bay will become the solution to that problem. The Stiltsville Trust's residency program is one of 66 proposals recently announced as finalists in the Miami Knight Arts Challenge, a list that includes projects by museums, movie houses, an opera company, and even a puppet parade.

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Antoinette Baldwin filed the Knight proposal for the Stiltsville Trust, which helped to preserve the houses and incorporate them into the state holdings that would later became Biscayne National Park.

"They have artists-in-residence in many national parks, but Biscayne National Park doesn't have one," she says. "The artists would get to experience Stiltsville and be inspired by it. There will be a traditional residence program and then also weekend or day residencies for artists who have jobs during the week. We may also do something with students, but that's down the line."

And though the houses are protected by a team of caretakers, the residency program isn't as simple as slapping some floaties on an artist and pointing towards the horizon.

"The biggest cost," Antoinette says, "is getting the artists to the place. You have to go by boat. That's the cost, that's what it takes. Putting the program together, there are some hours and there is some coordination. But you can't just drop a person in a house in the middle of the bay and hope they'll be fine."

Antoinette's husband Gail Baldwin is the chair of the Stiltsville Trust. He explains the challenges that face a Stiltsville residency that might not be faced by other similar programs.

"You have to know how to dock a boat, how the tides change and so forth," he tells Cultist. "The big boats that go down through the Biscayne channel create a big wake and, when they hit the house, if the boats aren't docked correctly, it can cause a lot of damage to the boats and the houses. Add to that, that they can't call the police, they can't call the fire department, and you see that you need to know what you're doing."

The Baldwins understand the power Stiltsville has over the imagination.

"One of the biggest questions that park rangers get is, 'What the hell is that out there?'," Gail tells Cultist. "We're preserving a way of life from early on, from before there were motorboats. There are a few places like it in Thailand and Mexico but it's a very special setting and adaptation to existing conditions."

According to Gail, Stiltsville has its origins in a waypoint for anglers from Miami stopping to get bait fish. Soon there was an improvised restaurant, serving conch stew from a small boat, followed by homes aboard metal barges floating out in the area where Stiltsville is today.

"They took the houses off the barges and put them on pylons," Gail explains. "They were adapting to the weather conditions and the higher and higher tides."

Gail says that preserving Stiltsville wasn't just a matter of keeping a unique part of South Florida's cultural history alive. By the time officials considered dismantling Stiltsville, "the houses had already become areas for fish and mussels to live. Taking them out would have been disastrous to the environment, just with all the sediment. And it would have killed anything that would have been living in the shade under the house."

"People are fascinated by it, but why is it magical?" Antoinette asks. "I don't know why; I just know that is. So many people choose it as a place to get married or have their memorial service, and that tells you there's something special about it."

The Baldwins don't get out to Stiltsville as often as they'd like. "It's the typical boat owner's story," she says. "The boat's not working when you want to go."

That doesn't mean that her passion for Siltsville has at all diminished; when Antoinette Baldwin dies, she knows she wants her ashes scattered out in Stiltsville.

"Why? I don't know," she says. "But I'll be in really good company, that's for sure."

To learn more about Siltsville, visit StiltsvilleTrust.org. Get the latest on this year's Knight Arts Challenge at KnightArts.org.

Follow Cultist on Facebook and Twitter @CultistMiami.

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