Good Actors, Lousy Stewards

Last month, when Miami-Dade County's Historic and Environmental Preservation Board granted the Coconut Grove Playhouse protected historical status, local preservationists breathed a sigh of relief. The 1926 Mediterranean Revival building would be protected forever.

But when the board meets again November 17, the playhouse will appeal the designation. "We want a modern facility to put on modern plays," says Michael Chavies, secretary of the CGP board. "We think that only a portion of the façade had historic value," he explains, "not the whole building."

Playhouse management sang a different tune in 1999, when it requested renovation money from the state. In a letter to the Florida Department of State, CGP producing artistic director Arnold Mittleman wrote, "This funding is critical to the reconstruction of the historic Playhouse facility that is in dire need of structural stabilization."

Another missive regarding the same grant application, penned by CGP general manager Bruce A. Leslie to the State Bureau of Historic Preservation, cites specific historic considerations — and they aren't limited to "portions of the façade."

"I am writing this letter to confirm those features that you indicated have historic significance and that we need to ensure will be preserved during the upcoming [state-funded] renovations to the facility," Leslie wrote. Among the seven items he detailed were "the proscenium surrounding the stage in the main auditorium," "the cherub lights on the wall in the main auditorium," and "the decorative columns in the concession area and restrooms in the main lobby."

From 1991 to 2003, the Florida Department of State contributed more than three million taxpayer dollars to playhouse improvements, including $500,000 from the above grant application. "Where did that money go?" wonders Margot Ammidown, former director of the Miami-Dade Historic Preservation Office. "Just to knock everything else down and save the façade is not an option. If they got that much money from the state, it means other buildings didn't get it."

Today the cherub lights and decorative columns protected in 1999 are apparently no longer worth saving. According to Chavies, a different sentiment prevails: "We had a good product, but we're falling apart," he says.

That's precisely why in 2004 Miami-Dade County allotted a whopping $20 million in bond revenue, $15 million of that from the voter-approved Building Better Communities Bond Program to "reconstruct the Coconut Grove Playhouse to restore its structural integrity and add to its performance and educational capabilities."

Michael Spring, director of cultural affairs for the county, contends the money wasn't specifically tied to claims of historic preservation. "Whether the building was historic or not historic wasn't the issue; the building is in drastic need of work," he remarks. However, Spring says, "There wasn't time to make a comprehensive review," when considering bond money distribution. Not only that, but — against his office's recommendation — the county did not mount an application process. Spring admits, "A lot of cultural groups that got in did so through relationships with county commissioners."

Preservationists first sounded the alarm last summer, when the CGP quietly made plans with a developer to combine the theater with a mixed-use condo, retail, and parking complex. The developer pulled out of that deal though, and Chavies insists, "The only plan right now is to renovate the CGP."

Only when prodded does Chavies concede that such a development would have been illegal: The theater's deed includes a clause that "the Playhouse Property only be utilized for theatre, theatrical productions, theatrical education, or related arts uses" — no condos, no retail space — otherwise the property would revert back to the State of Florida, its former owner. It's a stipulation that represents the millions of dollars taxpayers have already invested in the theater, one whose cultural returns (its most recent production was a theatrical adaptation of the best-selling memoir Tuesdays with Morrie) are often questioned.

When reminded of the reverter clause, Chavies acknowledges, "Anything beyond that which would be used for a playhouse would be illegal without the state's permission."

For Michael Spring, the issue is communication between the theater board and Grove community activists. He says exasperatedly: "We've talked about the fact that the building has a large degree of meaning for the community. The CGP is smart enough to know that the very façade of the building is part of who they are. They're more concerned that the historic designation of the parking lot and the interior is an error."

In 2005, that is.

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Emily Witt
Contact: Emily Witt