The Neo-Classical cottage that gave birth to Miami’s medical industry, a pristinely preserved relic of the city’s earliest days, sits just off Biscayne Bay in a small grove of gumbo limbo, strawberry guava and coconut palm trees, right smack up against a towering Brickell condo.
It now needs some consideration from city voters to secure its future.
The 111-year-old cottage was the office and surgery of pioneering Miami physician Dr. James Jackson, who helped plan and set up the Miami City Hospital, later renamed Jackson Memorial in his honor.
For nearly 40 years, Dade Heritage Trust, the county’s leading historic preservation group, has been quartered at the wood-frame house, which is owned by the City of Miami. But it’s on a month-to-month lease. That’s made it hard for the non-profit organization, which is fully responsible for maintaining and operating the historic building, to attract grants to help cover those costs and expand its programs.
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So the city is asking voters on the Nov. 8 ballot to authorize a 30-year lease with the Trust. Because the city won’t be going out for bids and is renting the building to the Trust at a far-below-market rate of $600 a year, that requires a charter amendment and a referendum.
Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado and Trust leaders say it’s a good deal for both sides. They say the city gets not just any tenant but a dedicated caretaker that invests $30,000 to $40,000 a year in maintenance and operation of the building, relieving taxpayers of the burden of upkeep. Those bills recently included window and carpeting repairs and air-conditioning upgrades as well as flood and wind insurance, said Trust executive director Christine Rupp.
“It’s basically our building to maintain, insure and operate,” Rupp said. “This is a very good thing for citizens.”
The Trust, meanwhile, gets a fittingly resonant base for its mission of saving historic places and a prime starting point for its growing schedule of walking and cycling tours of Brickell, downtown Miami and environs. The group has played a key role in preserving numerous historic and architectural landmarks, ranging from the Miami Circle and the original Miami High bungalow to the Cape Florida lighthouse on Key Biscayne, the Freedom Tower and the Miami Marine Stadium. The office, open to the public, also houses a visitor’s center and a small gallery.
Regalado, who initiated the amendment and has been actively campaigning in support, said there’s been no opposition to it. If the city were required to charge Brickell rents for the building, the Trust would not be able to afford it, he said.
“It gives the Trust the assurance that they will be there practically forever,” Regalado said. “And it gives them the ability to apply for grants and make improvements to the center and expand their tours, which will produce benefits for the public.”
Rupp said the referendum campaign has been a good opportunity to promote the Trust and shine a spotlight on the history of the cottage. On Thursday, the group will open a public photo exhibit at the cottage that tells the building’s topsy-turvy story.
In characteristic build-it-then-tear-it-down Miami fashion, the building almost did not survive past its early years. That it did was in part due to Jackson’s prescience.
Jackson, a young doctor practicing medicine in the small Florida town of Bronson, was recruited by modern Miami’s co-founder, industrialist Henry Flagler, to serve as in-house doc for his Florida East Coast Railway and Royal Palm Hotel, which would give rise to the city’s downtown.
Jackson built the cottage and a residence side-by-side in 1905 on what is now Flagler Street, on the site of today’s Olympia Theater. The office boasted a front porch supported by Doric columns. It also had a classical portico that was later removed. A long side porch was also added at some point.
According to Casey Piket’s miami-history.com, Jackson sold the property in 1916, but did not want to see his office or home demolished. He sold them to a new owner who moved both structures by barge to the new Brickell section, then known as Southside. (Jackson installed his office in the office building above the Olympia and built a grand new home on Brickell Avenue).
The city bought the office in 1976 to save it, but the adjacent house, by then badly deteriorated, was demolished in 2001 and replaced by a condo tower. The Trust moved in after restoring the Jackson office in 1978. Since then, it has needed some significant repairs, most recently when construction debris fell on the roof while the condo next door was going up. The developer covered the repairs.
But its prime location means the cottage would otherwise have disappeared long ago, like virtually all of the rest of Brickell’s original homes, had not the city and the Trust teamed up to preserve it. The cottage was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and the city made it a protected landmark.
Lease for historic home
The charter amendment allowing a lease for Dade Heritage Trust is item #238 on the City of Miami ballot.