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History Bulldozed As Charming Coconut Grove Homes Replaced By Giant Concrete Cubes

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If the walls of one of Coconut Grove’s oldest houses could still talk, they would tell tales of Miami’s past, of hurricanes, world wars, Prohibition, the Great Depression, Bohemian artists and folk singers, sailors and drug runners, City Hall shenanigans and Hotel Mutiny bacchanals, “Miami Vice” episodes and King Mango Struts.

Before the walls holding up the little yellow wood-frame house at 2835 Lincoln Avenue were silenced, they could have foretold its demise, too. Built in 1909, no amount of charm could save the house from the claw of an excavator that tore it to shreds four months ago. After 113 years, all that’s left on the lot is a 4-foot segment of white picket fence.

Coconut Grove has danced through many incarnations as Miami’s oldest community, first established in 1873 when a Cocoanut Grove post office was opened. But its lush canopy and Biscayne Bay shoreline always seemed to serve as a buffer from the most jarring extremes of Miami’s rampant growth.

The cottage nicknamed “Seaside,” built in 1909 and considered the oldest house in North Coconut Grove, was demolished in February. (PHOTO CREDIT: Maria Freed)

No more. Not only has the canopy been denuded and the bay polluted, but the houses of the old Grove are vanishing at an accelerated pace. Quaint cottages and inviting villas are being replaced by what Grovites disdainfully call sugar cubes, behemoth white boxes and antiseptic Lego-like structures that simply don’t belong.

History is no match for bulldozers.

“I’m sick and tired of watching my neighborhood disappear,” said Maria Freed, a leader in the losing fight to save the house on Lincoln Avenue.

Passionate about the fascinating history of the Grove, she writes a Facebook blog called Old Coconut Grove Houses, for which she researches the occupants, architecture and stories and posts photographs and her paintings of the homes. For 30 years, she’s owned a 44-year-old house in the North Grove.

“For awhile, there were still enough houses and bungalows with the distinct Coconut Grove vibe to hide the presence of the new, ugly, huge white cubes,” Freed said. “But in the last two years, we’ve been overrun. Although we don’t expect everyone to share our taste for historic preservation, there’s been a stampede of people building in the Grove who have their own selfish ideas about demonstrating wealth and success and no respect for the treasures they are destroying.”

One of the new concrete-box houses being built on Seminole Street in North Coconut Grove. (PHOTO CREDIT: Linda Robertson)

At 5.6 square miles, Coconut Grove comprises 10% of the city of Miami’s total area of 56 square miles, yet 50% of the demolition permits issued in the city last year were for houses in the Grove, according to city records. Demolitions increased from one in 2010 to 55 in 2021. During that stretch, the highest annual permit total was 65 in 2017.

That disproportionate figure is a sign of the times. Walk down Seminole or Avocado — two of the Grove’s quintessential streets — and witness the change. Half the old houses are gone. In their place, alien-looking invaders: Contemporary, stark, enormous. The opposite of earthy, quirky and cozy. Angular shapes that clash with the jungle’s curves.

“They are not complementary to the natural environment that makes the Grove the Grove,” Freed said. “They are cold houses that don’t engage with the outside. Big, blank concrete walls. We’re very neighborly and civic-minded in the Grove and these are not rocking-chairs-on-the-front-porch, come-by-and-chat kinds of houses.”

More Historic Homes Set For Wrecking Ball

Freed received notice from the city’s Office of Zoning of 13 more demolition permits issued in recent weeks. She rushed out to take photos of the houses before they became extinct. One is a 1940 Spanish Mediterranean on Park Avenue, 1,442 square feet on a 6,816-square-foot lot. Freed found the original Miami Herald for sale “in charming Coconut Grove” advertisement: $4,500.

Soon to go is a 1927 sage blue, red-door cottage with delightful wood trim on Elizabeth Street, an elegant, layer cake 1925 Mediterranean on Palmetto Avenue and a sturdy 1946 house on Carter Street surrounded by fruit trees that was “built to withstand anything except a hungry investor,” Freed wrote.

She believes the days are numbered for one of her favorites, a 1934 Dade County Pine cottage with a screened-in front porch on a verdant 7,000-square-foot corner lot at Avocado and Plaza streets that backs up to what used to be the cottage owned by the late theater press agent Charlie Cinnamon — torn down after Cinnamon died in 2016. The 988-square-foot cottage at 3598 Avocado was sold for $1 million in January by Marguerite Betts King, 92, a former schoolteacher and the widow of popular University of Miami engineering professor Walter Blake King, who died in 2010.

Freed is worried about the fate of a cottage on Royal Palm Avenue that was just listed for $1.7 million. It was used as a tea house or guest house by the Grove’s famous Peacock family, who were among the Grove’s early settlers, and moved to its current spot in 1924.

More construction is afoot. More trees are being chopped down.

“It’s sad, it’s appalling and it’s happening faster than people realize,” said Florence Danly, who has lived on Tigertail Avenue near Seminole for 25 years.

She converted her swimming pool to a koi pond so her son could snorkle in it. She enjoys the company of a couple dozen birds in her sprawling garden. She used to live in France.

“You would never see this kind of transformation in Paris or the villages of France. It’s prohibited,” Danly said.

But not in Miami, a place with a short memory.

Pandemic-Fueled Housing Frenzy

The reality of today’s runaway real estate market has hit the Grove hard. The influx of wealthy buyers — many from New York, California and Chicago seeking an income-tax-free haven in Florida — took off in the summer of 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic peak.

All but wiped away in the radical gentrification is the historically Black section of the formerly segregated neighborhood called West Grove. It was home to Bahamian immigrants and African American Southerners who played key roles in the building and cultural identity of Miami.

Coconut Grove, with its prime location close to downtown and its large leafy lots, is particularly appealing to multimillionaire transplants, and home prices are still considered a bargain by out-of-towners from more expensive cities. Combine those factors with the ease of obtaining a demolition permit in Miami, and the stock of tempting teardowns will continue to dwindle, real estate agents with their fingers on the pulse of the housing market say.

“Houses are bought and sold by the square foot,” said Riley Smith, president of his own real estate company. “If you can put a 5,000 or 8,000-square-foot house on a large, attractive piece of property instead of a 2,000-square-foot house, that lot will sell.”

Smith grew up on Seminole in a 1950s ranch house that doesn’t exist anymore. The footprints of the new houses are quadruple the size of the old ones on the street of his childhood, where the lots are as large as 20,000 square feet.

Smith said 2021 was a record year in the Grove for average residential sale price ($2.93 million), average price per square foot ($874) and number of homes sold (286 compared to 159 in 2020). In the coming months, he foresees a flattening of home values and higher number of days on the market due to cooling demand.

Among the houses he’s selling: A “magical” 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom, 1,876-square-foot coral rock bungalow on a 7,712 square-foot lot for $2.3 million; a 5-bedroom, 5 1/2-bathroom, 5,600-square-foot “modern-style” house on a 10,800-square-foot lot for $4.9 million; an “enchanting” gated 2-bed, 1-bath, 1,450-square-foot cottage with a footbridge on a 10,800-square-foot lot for $1.8 million; and a 5-bedroom, 4-bathroom, 5,128-square-foot “stunning” estate on an 11,930-square-foot lot for $7.9 million.

“As a Realtor, I have to walk the fence because I work with developers building new houses and people who want to save old houses,” Smith said. “Personally, I’m not a fan of the modern architectural style. I miss the character of the smaller houses that’s part of our DNA in the Grove. “But most new builders and buyers are staying in that modern vein. It’s trendy with the open concept and the light. It’s less expensive to build with the flat roofs. On a big lot it makes sense.”

He predicted a gradual shift in style. Just as the Grove went through its McMansion, Home Depot Mediterranean and Pollo Tropical periods.

“We will get over the modern box look, too,” Smith said. “I’ve seen renderings from developers and the Key West-style may come back, some California styles may come in. What bothers people most about the current style is it’s such a contrast to the original houses. These structures are massive.”

What Smith does not foresee is a slowdown of residential development in Coconut Grove. Affluent buyers want new, supersized houses, developers and speculators want to maximize their profits and the city wants property-tax dollars. Historic houses get erased in that financial equation.

“If the Grove was its own city, we would have figured out how to control growth by now,” Smith said. “But developers have a lot of power and add a lot of revenue to the city budget. We are doing better on saving trees. My instinct is Miami will get better about saving houses and will evolve into a city with a strong preservation-minded culture like Coral Gables, which has standards we can aspire to.”

City Commissioners Bow To Redevelopment Pressure

Critics have long said Miami’s commissioners bow to the influence of developers, thus undermining the efforts of the city’s Historic Preservation Division, which is often understaffed and subject to turnover, and its Historic and Environmental Protection Board.

“The city gets an F in historic preservation,” Freed said. “It’s not a priority. They need a robust staff who can do their jobs with protection from the politics.”

“The Catch-22 of the demolition process illustrates Miami’s inherent weakness on preservation issues,” said Christine Rupp, executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust.

Any application for demolition of a house at least 50 years old triggers a review of the house’s historic significance. The city has the authority to designate a house as historic and deny permission to demolish it. But the owner may appeal the designation to commissioners, who have little choice but to concede that the owner’s property rights take precedence.

“If an owner does not self-designate the city can force designation upon the house without his consent, but that becomes a hostile situation with the threat of lawsuits that we want to avoid,” said Commissioner Ken Russell, whose district includes Coconut Grove.

Russell has been an advocate for preservation. He’s tried to strengthen the city’s loophole-ridden building and zoning laws to shrink the footprint size and height of the white boxes.

“The cube is not a design, it’s a mathematical formula that produces the maximum build-out square footage for these hulking structures that degrade the community,” said Russell.

He’s tried to add teeth to oft-exploited Neighborhood Conservation District guidelines. He’s promoted an idea for a rotating preservation fund that would include grant money to safeguard historic houses. But he’s typically a minority of one when the commission votes. Three years ago, Russell and historic preservation staff designated 50 houses in the Grove in order to save them. But half the owners appealed to remove the designation and the commission granted every appeal.

“Part of the onus is on homeowners,” Rupp said. “If they want to save the old Grove, they need to take advantage of city regulations and designate their house or their neighborhood as historic. When someone buys with the intention of tearing down a house in Miami, he buys with the expectation that he can do whatever he wants with the property. So it’s the responsibility of the owner to historically designate it in the first place. It’s always after the fact that the seller bemoans the demolition.”

Dade Heritage Trust has compiled an inventory of historic houses and talks to owners about their options. They are often resistant to designation, because they believe it will make their house harder to sell, which Rupp thinks is a myth.

Smith, on the other hand, does not see great benefit in historic designation because the seller is appealing to a small segment of the market and scaring away potential buyers who don’t want a house saddled with restrictions.

Freed has tried to organize the residents of her Coconut Grove Park Homeowners Association to classify their neighborhood as historic but she lacks sufficient support.

“We are losing the assets and ambience of Coconut Grove while people in the Grove complain about the destruction, but don’t step up to prevent it,” Rupp said. “The owner has to be committed to preserving the house and have faith that somebody will see it, fall in love and pay a premium. You can still add on to the house. It’s not like you cannot touch it. Maybe it’s an altruistic and romantic notion, but if you live in a historic house you are the caretaker, and when you sell, you can ensure that you’ll pass it on to the next caretaker.”

Mistake Dooms One Of Grove’s Oldest Houses

The former owner of the old metal-roofed, Key West-style house at 2835 Lincoln Avenue mistakenly assumed it had been designated as historically significant. But it never was. John Thompson, formerly a Miami real estate agent, sold the 1,344-square-foot house and 6,250-square-foot lot to local orthopedist Dr. Philip Lozman in 2020, and assured his longtime neighbors it would not be knocked down. Thompson was wrong.

When the neighbors on the Lincoln cul-de-sac found out Lozman wasn’t going to renovate the house, they alerted Freed and other preservationists, who mounted a collaborative campaign and raised money to save it. They planned to move it to a vacant lot, and told Lozman it wouldn’t cost him anything. In fact, he’d save on demolition costs. But Lozman wasn’t interested.

“I don’t want to discuss it,” Lozman said, when reached by phone by a Miami Herald reporter.

“The plan “fell through the cracks,” Freed said, when Warren Adams, the city’s historic preservation officer, left to become director of historical resources and cultural arts for Coral Gables.

“He had promised not to issue a demolition permit,” Rupp said.

“It’s an outrage that this could happen to one of the oldest houses remaining in Miami,” said Thompson, the former owner.

The neighbors did not receive the required 15-day notice of demolition, which they could have appealed, nor was a sign posted on the property as required.

“It was done under the radar, sneaky,” said neighbor Mary Brunk, who has lived in the Grove since 1974. “We were in shock. I’m sure they’ll build something stupid.

The demolition was temporarily halted midway when a water pipe was ruptured. That’s when Brunk and her neighbors went inside and salvaged what they could — mostly books and furniture that she carried to her front yard and gave away.

“The copper liner of the bathtub was engraved with the date 1897,” Brunk said. “There were vintage tin ceilings. Somebody saved the Dade County Pine floors, the kitchen cabinets and the doors. It was beautiful. It’s painful to look out and see a blank space. What’s next? There’s no stopping these people who don’t care. We’ve got five acres near Naples and we’re thinking of moving before the Grove becomes unrecognizable.”

The house nicknamed Seaside was constructed by a Grove shipbuilder who was acquainted with Ralph Munroe, the yacht designer who built his boathouse and his home, the Barnacle — now a state historic site — on the bay. Seaside’s twin, a pink cracker-style house, was demolished in 2019. Among the former owners of Seaside was Bud Popenhager, a developer and contractor who helped build Miami and Miami Beach hotels, such as the Castaways and the Fontainebleau. He built Popenhager Camp as his weekend getaway lodge in Big Cypress Preserve, where there is a plaque in his honor, and is credited with inventing the swamp buggy to get around the Everglades, according to Freed’s research.

Robert and Darryl Davis, young architects for the Duany Plater-Zyberk firm who lived in the house from 1979 to 1983, have said much of the inspiration for the planned coastal community in the Florida Panhandle — called Seaside — came from their old house. The house appeared in TV shows, movies and commercials, including “Miami Vice” (Brunk got a script signed by the stars after an episode was filmed there) and “Miami Rhapsody” with Sarah Jessica Parker.

There are plenty more houses lovingly memorialized on Freed’s blog, including a 1920 Art Deco “Mansionette” in the North Grove that has become a spacious hangout for peacocks. Occasionally, she’ll pause to photograph and ridicule a new concrete-and-glass block, such as the one that “looks like a CVS” on Trapp Avenue.

She fears the cottage on Royal Palm is doomed. It is a snug 2-bed, 1-bath (989 square feet) on a luscious 7,000-square-foot lot. Its exposed rafters, stone fireplace and rustic shiplap wall paneling remind her of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ cracker house in Cross Creek, Florida.

If it disappears, it could be the last straw for Freed, who, like Brunk, owns property out of town, up in Palm Beach County, and is contemplating a move away from the Grove she captures in her nostalgic paintings “before I become a dinosaur.”

The cottage used to be owned by Ida Galliher, last wife of Gregory Hemingway, Ernest Hemingway’s youngest son, who in his later years, after transgender surgery, went by Gloria. The couple met at the Taurus Steak House on Main Highway and lived in the house for about 10 years. Hemingway had previously lived on Day Avenue while attending University of Miami medical school. He wore women’s clothes on occasion throughout his life, which caused estrangement from his father.

“My friend Joe first met Greg at medical school … and remembers witnessing Greg come to the dinner table in a dress and barefoot, his toenails painted red,” Freed wrote in her blog. “Greg never changed his voice or demeanor while wearing a dress around his medical school friends and his manners were always impeccable. Much has been written about Dr. Hemingway’s struggles with gender dysphoria, but regrettably not enough about the fact that he was a very good physician who showed great empathy for his patients, just like his grandfather.”

Hemingway battled bipolar disorder and alcoholism. Carrying a black cocktail dress and high heels, he was arrested for indecent exposure on Crandon Boulevard near Bill Baggs State Park in Key Biscayne on Sept. 25, 2001, and died five days later at age 69 at the Miami-Dade Women’s Detention Center.

“We’ve had so many wonderful characters in Coconut Grove, and we can’t forget them,” Freed said. “The people are like the houses and the houses are like the people: One of a kind.”

View the Miami Herald news video ‘The Gentrification Of The West Grove, Explained By A Local Pastor‘ below.

Source: Miami Herald

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