Real Estate

Fisher Family: Destroying Church Courtyard Shows "Lack of Respect for History and Culture"

Sometime this morning, the Miami Beach Historical Preservation Board will decide whether or not to grant a rehearing on the controversial plan to turn the Miami Beach Community Church courtyard into a clothing store. Church leaders claim the plan will save the struggling parish. Preservationists and some church members, meanwhile, say the plan will be a disaster.

One man who hasn't weighed in until now is Jerry Fisher, the last living relative of Carl Fisher, the man who founded the church and much of Miami Beach.

Destroying the courtyard would show "a lack of respect for history and culture," Fisher says. "Once it's been destroyed you can never go back. That's the problem."

See also: Miami Beach Community Church Controversy: Developer Donated $500,000 Before Key Vote

Jerry Fisher isn't just Carl's last living relative: he is also his famous forefather's biographer. In his book The Pacesetter, Jerry describes how Carl Fisher invented the automobile headlight, founded the Indianapolis 500 race, and created the first transcontinental highway.

Perhaps Carl Fisher's biggest legacy, however, was in creating Miami Beach out of a mangrove patch. In exchange for financing a bridge to the island, Fisher was given a huge chunk of land on Miami Beach. From that parcel he crafted Lincoln Road and much of South Beach.

Shortly after Christmas 1919, Carl Fisher's wife, Jane, convinced him to donate land on Lincoln Road and $50,000 to build the island's first church: the Miami Beach Congregational Church.

"That courtyard... has so much history," Jerry Fisher says. "This is the last green, grassy spot on Lincoln Road. And this is one of the last ties in history to Carl and Jane Fisher. Carl gave that property with the strict stipulation that it would be used for a church and not a commercial development."

Destroying the courtyard to build a clothing store would be an insult to Carl Fisher's legacy, his relative says.

"It will be a tragedy if this becomes just another commercial enterprise," Jerry Fisher says. "Four or five years from now, if that doesn't work out, they'll put something else there like a Starbucks. Where does it end?

"South Florida's Cultural heritage will be gone," he says. "Its ties to the past would be completely gone. That would be a shame in my opinion."

Fisher points out that next year is the centennial of Miami Beach's founding.

"The last icon of the true history of Miami Beach should be preserved so that future generations know about the little white church, as it was known," he says. "To have construction cranes in there when this all happening next year just doesn't make sense to me."

Fisher is not alone in his concern that the courtyard could be destroyed for nothing. Documents obtained by New Times show that developer TriStar Capital's lease agreement with the church is for $3.5 million over the first three years. The lease is contingent, however, on the HPB giving a final, unappealable green light to the project.

That raises the possibility that the courtyard could be torn up by the church only for the deal to fall through.

Or, that the project will be approved and the courtyard destroyed, only for some unforeseen circumstance to cause the clothing store plan to be scrapped.

Those same documents also support New Times reporting about a $500,000 donation given by the developer to the church before the congregation voted to approve the plan.

In a statement sent by MBCC to city commissioners and the mayor yesterday, Reverend H.E. Thompson wrote:

But copies of the lease and the church's letter of intent clearly show that the church considered the $500,000 a non-refundable "donation" and that it was paid before the congregation voted on the development plan.

Moreover, New Times repeatedly asked both the church and TriStar Capital for comment on the donation but neither provided a response.

Finally, this donation could cause problems for the church. As pointed out by South Beach gadfly Frank Del Vecchio, parties applying for a certificate of appropriateness from HPB are required to disclose details of their agreements.

If the HPB finds that the church or TriStar improperly withheld details of the donation, the board could toss out the application and refuse to reconsider it for at least a year.

Church officials appear confident, however.

"The church has acted with integrity throughout the negotiation and planning process," Reverend Thompson wrote in his letter to the city.

Jerry Fisher isn't so sure.

He says similar plans to destroy Fisher buildings in Waikiki, Hawaiit and Montauk, New York were thwarted by communities that recognized the properties' historic value and decided to preserve them. But the Miami Beach Community Church has downplayed Carl Fisher's legacy in the rush to develop the lucrative land.

"If people in Florida and Miami Beach in particular really knew their history and knew about Carl Fisher, this wouldn't have gotten so far," Jerry Fisher says. "I'm just hoping that the courtyard can survive."

Send your tips to the author, or follow him on Twitter @MikeMillerMiami.

Follow Miami New Times on Facebook and Twitter @MiamiNewTimes.

KEEP MIAMI NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.

Latest Stories