On a typical hot and humid Miami morning, my friend Wayne and his neighbors encountered a collection of bulldozers revving up their engines preparing for the demolition of the old, stately coral stone home on the corner of their unincorporated Miami-Dade County neighborhood just outside South Miami’s city limits.
No amount of hemming and hawing from the neighbors was going to discourage the contractor from demolishing the house on 6491 SW 85th Street that day.
It was all about the timing and loopholes in the county law. The Miami Dade Historical Review Board had scheduled the property for preliminary discussion a week later. Without a determination on whether the home was architecturally significant to get a historical designation (the most casual of observers would easily assume it was historic) the contractor had no legal reason to stop the demolition.
Kathleen Slesnick Kauffman, historic preservation chief of Miami Dade County government, informed me that the county’s historic preservation ordinance (Chapter 16A) provides for a moratorium on all building or demolition permits to any property that is in the designation process. Unfortunately for the neighbors and for all of South Floridians, the process of historic designation had not begun on this “one of a kind building,” she said.
And so on Sept. 6, the peculiar home built from oolitic limestone was destroyed.
For those of you who grew up in an old neighborhood up north or even those who, like me, grew up in an old neighborhood in Miami before the xenophobic skedaddle of the early 1980’s when Miamians fled in droves, one can remember the few neighbors on the block who had lived in their homes well before Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.
Those “old” neighbors’ presence was an integral part of neighborhood lore. It’s was also part of the living history that surrounds us.
Prominent architect Rolando Llanes, who fought the demolition of the old Bobby Maduro Baseball Stadium several years ago, pointed out that historic preservation “is not solely about preserving structures for their aesthetic value, but more importantly, it’s about the history of the people that lived in and around those building. These historic structures are significant elements helping us better understand who we were as a people as well as providing us with a fundamental identity as a community.”
“Identity” and “community” are two concepts Llanes brought up that are painfully lacking in our transient town.
The old coral home’s demolition is a story that keeps getting repeated all over South Florida — one of disregard, shortsightedness and greed.
Yet the county could change course in a Miami minute if it had the gumption to do so. The City of Coral Gables, which receives much criticism for its stringent codes, has it right when it comes to historic preservation. In “The City Beautiful,” as the Gables is called, demolition permits have to be routed through the historic preservation office before being issued. Because of this statute, Coral Gables has been able to save many historically significant homes from the wrecking ball.
Miami-Dade Commissioner Xavier Suarez, a longtime supporter of historic preservation trying to save another South Florida jewel, the Coconut Grove Playhouse, told me that he is “distraught to see historic sites demolished, given our city’s relative youth and lack of history as a metropolis.”
He has asked his daughter, Olga Vieira, chair of the Dade Heritage Trust, to craft legislation, for the county commission to consider, which would emulate Coral Gables’ ordinance.
For my friend Wayne and all the residents of their Snapper Creek subdivision, it is too little too late. Soon enough, I suppose, they will sadly be subjected to a “McMansion,” possibly four on the one-acre lot. These cookie-cutter homes are littered throughout Miami-Dade and Broward counties. I’m also sure that this new group of homes will have all the modern amenities a homeowner would desire.
What they won’t have is the charm and character of the house that stood there before. What they won’t have is the pioneering spirit of the demolished coral home. We are all worse off for that.