Architecture & Design

After Years of Neglect, Overtown's Historic Black Library to Get a Makeover After Lawsuit

Time took its toll on the Dorsey Memorial Library as it sat vacant in Overtown for more than 50 years. Its walls were covered in graffiti. A fire burned through most of the interior. Termites ate their way through the rotting wood like a giant buffet. Last year, the roof caved in.

That's all about to change. After years of deterioration, the building is being restored. Funding has finally come through and an architecture firm has been retained to oversee the effort.

"It's a preservation project, so it'll look like what it did when it was originally built, only with modern infrastructure like air conditioning and internet," says Wyatt Porter-Brown, vice president at MC Harry, the firm commissioned by the city of Miami. 

Attorney Faudlin Pierre believes the city finally stepped up after he filed a public nuisance lawsuit against it back in March. The complaint, filed on behalf of community activist Elliott Jones, accused the city of neglecting the building, which was only the second library available to black Miami residents. When it opened in 1941, black people weren't allowed to use the regular library, historian Marvin Dunn told New Times back in March

In May, the city allocated more than $352,000 toward restoring the library, and the OMNI community redevelopment agency committed $850,000. That same month, the city signed a contract with MC Harry for design and permitting services. The entire project is expected to finish up around June 2018 and cost about $1.2 million. 

"Why it wasn't done before goes beyond our decisions and I don't really want to speculate, but we are going to get it done. I can only tell you that we are moving forward," says Jeovanny Rodriguez, director of the city's capital improvement program.

Although Pierre and Jones filed the lawsuit to put pressure on the city, Pierre says the two parties haven't been at odds in the same way municipalities and the citizens who sue them typically are.

"I think we both recognized that we had a common goal," he says.

The land was donated by Miami's first black millionaire, Dana A. Dorsey, for use as a library. Because the property was deeded specifically for that purpose, the city is planning to reopen the building as some sort of educational facility for Overtown residents.

"We want to make something very modern but we don't want to go outside of the library scope," says project manager José Caldiera.

Pierre told New Times he's pitching the idea of turning the building into a tech and innovation center, perhaps bringing on partners like Code Fever and Black Tech Week that could breathe new life into the space.

"That would be a perfect synergy to use Dorsey as a hub to bolster that," Pierre says.

For now, the architecture firm is researching the history of the building to get a sense of how it should look.

"We're just trying to get a complete background picture of the library, both literally and figuratively," Porter-Brown says. "There are precious few photos of the place."

Caldiera, the project manager, says he's only seen two historical photographs so far. The city and the other parties involved are asking residents to send in personal photos if they have them. (If you send New Times your photos, we'll forward them along.)

"We want to see pictures from people that they may have in their home," Caldiera says. "Anything that could be available would help out a lot."
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Jessica Lipscomb is news editor of Miami New Times and an enthusiastic Florida Woman. Born and raised in Orlando, she has been a finalist for the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
Contact: Jessica Lipscomb