Henry Flagler deserves better. The last remnant of his influence on Miami’s development is a yellow clapboard house that has fallen into disrepair behind a locked fence on a riverfront lot, vacant for eight years.
The 1897-vintage house could stand as a historical tribute to the man known as the “Father of Miami” who built the Florida East Coast Railway all the way to Key West. Instead, it’s becoming an eyesore.
“Without Flagler there would be no Miami metropolis today,” said Christine Rupp, executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust. “Yet the last structure that has any connection to him is abandoned and endangered.”
The building, known as the Flagler Worker’s House, is located at 60-64 Southeast Fourth Street in Fort Dallas Park, where it was moved in 1980 to save it from demolishment. It used to be the Raymond Butler Insurance office, then Bijan’s On the River, an open-air seafood restaurant that went out of business. The city asked for proposals to develop the property, but no one came forward with any good ideas.
Until Rupp created one. She wants to refurbish the house into a visitors’ center with interpretive text and photo panels about Flagler, the industrialist from Cleveland who co-founded Standard Oil and spent the latter part of his life developing land in Florida. Fix up the park with new landscaping. Add a small café with outdoor seating and a bike-rental shop so people can ride on the underutilized Miami River greenway. Make it the site of a future water-taxi stop.
“We’d be providing access to a historic building and encouraging use of the urban trail that runs along both sides of the river,” she said. “It could be an educational and recreational spot for residents, students and tourists.”
Miami historian, preservationist and author Arva Moore Parks was instrumental in preventing the house from being torn down and thinks Rupp’s concept is “the perfect use of the house.”
“I’d be horrified if the last thing Flagler built here that’s still standing was allowed to deteriorate further,” Parks said. “It’s an extremely significant building.”
Rupp was inspired by Miami novelist Les Standiford’s book “Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad That Crossed an Ocean,” which chronicles the engineering feat of building the railroad across 153 miles of water through the Keys and its demise after the 1935 hurricane.
“Every time Flagler agreed to extend the rail line southward it was a huge shot in the arm for Florida’s economy — it was like people following a gold rush,” Standiford said.
At the turn of the century, Flagler ordered construction of about three dozen houses on Southeast First and Second streets after seeing his workers and their families living in tents. They had moved south seeking jobs building Flagler’s railroad and the Royal Palm Hotel — one of several grand resorts Flagler built in Florida — at the mouth of the Miami River after they’d been left penniless by a freeze that killed citrus crops in central and northern Florida. The hotel was damaged by the 1926 hurricane and closed.
“The hotel was huge, had a great portico and a spur track from the railroad terminal for fancy-pants guests, was painted in his signature Flagler yellow and opened in 1897, the year after the city was created with a population of 330,” Parks said. “Julia Tuttle — who deserves to be called the ‘Mother of Miami’ because she convinced Flagler to come down from Palm Beach — gave him that land.”
Miami’s early residents wanted to name their outpost Flagler City, but he was no egomaniac and suggested naming it after the river instead, Standiford said.
By the 1970s only one of the worker homes remained, and a 1983 report by the city’s planning department recommended a historical conservation designation for “the last known structure in Miami directly associated with Flagler and the city’s development in the last years of the 19th century.”
“Something ought to be here to memorialize him and remind people how Miami came to be,” Standiford said. “He created Miami, and an entire state, after all, and all we have left of him is a bust on Flagler Street. We have preserved precious little of our history.”
Rupp’s Flagler Cottage proposal is a finalist in the Miami Foundation’s Public Space Challenge, which awards $5,000-$25,000 grants for improvement of Miami’s public spaces. Her plan is for the Dade Heritage Trust to join in a funding coalition with the city and private donors.
“The Public Space Challenge would give us seed money to create partnerships and acquire more grants to make it happen,” she said. “Other cities are rehabbing historic buildings. When people visit Miami they are intrigued by old buildings because there are not many remaining.”