For sale: Magical oasis of art and nature on Miami’s Little River, pig not included

08/02/2013 11:25 AM

08/03/2013 8:51 AM

You would never know it’s there unless you happen to know it’s there — one of those serene, hidden havens that somehow survive the implacable march of development in Miami.

On a hard-to-find bend of the Little River, on the edge of Little Haiti and smack-dab in the middle of the city, the Magic City Farm is all that and more: A botanical garden, an Ark, a time capsule, a work of art.

There is a renovated coral-pink farmhouse, circa 1918, a converted boathouse whose doors open to the edge of the slow-moving water, and six clapboard cabins salvaged from a nearby 1920s tourist motor-court. The brightly colored buildings are set amid a shady, well-tended grove of native and exotic tropical fruit trees, palms, flowering bushes and a bevy of rescued animals — cats, dogs, ducks, chickens and a pot-bellied pig — who have free run of the one-acre property.

But it’s the interiors that best display the owner’s keenly honed sensibility and utterly original eye. Nearly every inch of space is artfully draped, hung and covered with an ever-changing collection of rugs and brightly patterned textiles from Asia, and arrangements of pieces from her extensive accumulation of found objects and Southern folk and outsider art.

The furnishings — “eclectic” doesn’t begin to capture the esthetic — are a mix of handmade, rustic, ethnic and thrift-shop finds.

And it’s all for sale. Just about every last bit of it.

Owner Tamara Hendershot, a South Beach pioneer who for the past dozen years has made a living renting out the place for photo shoots, is 70 and has been slowed by arthritis. Though very much hands-on, unafraid of hammering and sawing, she fears she can no longer handle the substantial upkeep, which she carries out with help from a small part-time staff.

“Leaving it is leaving my dream. It’s an inner peace you get here that I’ve never felt anywhere else,’’ Hendershot said as she stood in the garden, paint brush in hand, her bare feet spotted with brown stain finish from a set of new French doors she was readying for the boathouse. “But I don’t want to see it start falling apart with me in it.’’

Asking price: $1.35M

Hendershot doesn’t want to sell to just anyone. The asking price is designed to discourage anyone who would not treasure the place: $1.35 million, far above the modest prices fetched by other homes in the quiet, single-family Oakland Grove neighborhood, which is occupied mostly by Haitian families. The listing agent is Esther Percal, realtor to celebrities and an old friend from crazy South Beach days.

The art collection, for sale separately, includes several paintings by late Overtown artist and Hendershot friend Purvis Young, an early work by Roberto Juarez, and pieces by outsider artists she found and befriended during forays into northern Florida and across the Deep South. Hendershot had a South Beach shop, Vanity Novelty Garden, where she sold their work.

The rugs and textiles — hundreds of pieces — were purchased on trips to less-trodden places in Southeast Asia such as West Timor and Laos and “little islands’’ off the coast of Cambodia. Now that she can’t travel as much, Hendershot buys online.

All the coverings are changed and washed weekly because the dogs, cats and chickens wander in and out of the house and perch on the furniture. Sometimes Hendershot finds an egg in the sofa cushions.

“They all have names and they all visit,’’ Hendershot said of the hens. “The eggs are delicious.’’

It might be called shabby chic if it wasn’t all neat as a pin. The paint on the windows — originals, found in the attic — may be peeling, but it’s a deliberate choice, Hendershot said. Now she and a housekeeper — whose mailman husband studied furniture design and built a rustic cabinet for Hendershot — are scraping and painting door and window frames because buyers expect it.

“Everything can look shabby as far as I’m concerned. But no termites,’’ she said. “I don’t like termites.’’

Magic City Farm is no secret to those in the know. Bruce Weber shot Morgan Freeman and supermodel Lara Stone here for Vogue. A moody-looking Lenny Kravitz was photographed in Hendershot’s kitchen for Interview. Most recently, a German catalogue company used the cottages and gardens as sun-splashed backdrops for its fashions.

Friends and acquaintances are sorry to hear that Hendershot intends to move on.

“That piece of property is a gem,’’ said Coconut Grove lawyer Tucker Gibbs, who once received payment from Hendershot in the form of several Purvis Young pieces after helping her with a zoning matter. “When you go onto her property, you are stepping back in time. It is absolutely off the beaten path.

“It is Tamara. It is so her personality. She sees the beauty in these places. She is one of those people who make Miami an interesting place to live.’’

Like Magic City Farm, Hendershot says, much of her life has been an accretion of happy accidents. “Things happen, and then there you are,’’ she said.

Trained as a marine biologist, Hendershot worked on research vessels in the Pacific, based in Hawaii, before quitting to travel. She bounced back to her native New York in the early days of SoHo’s revival. There she became friendly with film director Jonathan Demme, who infected her with his enthusiasm for Haitian and naif art.

Tropical taste

Hendershot wound up in South Beach on an impulse after driving down with a friend in the mid-1980s, quitting her job at a New York photo agency to buy a bungalow south of Fifth Street that she decorated with seashells and painted Caribbean colors.

She began traveling around the South to visit self-taught outsider artists, some of whom gained recognition through her work.

“I got interested in the primitive, but the quirky primitive. I wasn’t doing the hoity-toity. I was doing the reasonable,’’ she recalled.

As a neighborhood activist, she also helped wage a campaign against high-rise development, but left for the Miami mainland in search of an authentic neighborhood when it became clear that cause was lost.

“It was hard to leave the Beach. But it got too gentrified. So I just went looking,’’ she said.

She wound up in Edgewater for a spell, where she bought and renovated another old house; her all-time favorite fix-up, it was published in the Taschen book Miami Interiors.

Then one day Hendershot happened across the farm, which she said had been owned for decades by a Jamaican man. He had planted it with a grove of fruit trees from his native island, including jackfruit, ackee and papaya.

She and Gibbs researched the scanty records and concluded the area was once farmland, subdivided by the man who built Hendershot’s house. It may at one point have been reachable only by boat on the Little River, across which lies the village of El Portal. Today the neighborhood, which has only one way in and out and is bordered on the east by railroad tracks, still feels splendidly isolated.

Hendershot opened up the farmhouse interior, knocking out walls and adding a back porch. She found she had a knack for combining colors and textures of textiles in ways that should not work, but very much do.

“As bright as they are, they’re relatively muted,’’ she said. “I found that so long as you use muted, busy patterns, the more you use, the more peaceful it becomes. But none of them are day-glo colors. We don’t get caught dead with those.’’

As obsessively as she collected textiles and art, she began collecting tropical plants and trees to supplement and replace some dying specimens in her predecessor’s grove. Today the farm has, among dozens of species, an almond tree, two different avocado varieties, banana and guava trees, four types of bamboo, Florida royal palms, four varieties of coconut palm and a rare Valencia mango.

Her latest find: Florida slash pine, the tree that once covered much of upland South Florida, which can now be purchased in nurseries. She is nursing several saplings in front of her house.

Impromptu shelter

Because people would abandon cats and dogs in the neighborhood, she began sheltering animals.

“Suddenly I had dogs and chickens and all these cats walking around, and then my niece brought a pig,’’ she said. Someone had found the pig tied to a fence in a field, nearly starved.

Once again, she helped organize her neighbors, reviving a dormant association and working with Miami City Commissioner Michelle Spence-Jones to combat neglect by banks of foreclosed homes in the area. She also co-founded the Little Haiti Community Garden, an expanding endeavor that’s slowly becoming a going commercial concern for residents.

One day, she heard about 23 tiny cabins with tiny porches and tiny bathrooms that owners of the nearby Magic City Trailer Park were getting rid of. The city had tried to declare the park, one of the few original surviving tourist attractions in Miami, a historic landmark. But the owners persuaded the preservation board the cabins were so rotted they wouldn’t hold a nail.

At least some were perfectly sound, however. Hendershot bought six, for under $10 each, and had them trucked on a flatbed to the farm — one of the craziest things she ever undertook. Moving them in required knocking down part of the property’s concrete wall, and cost considerably more than the purchase price.

Hendershot fixed them up, painted the exteriors in bright Caribbean shades, then stripped the interior walls and just waxed them, giving them an unusual stippled look. Now, as she prepares to sell, she’s giving them a makeover, painting each cabin’s exterior in a different shade of white.

The boathouse got a fresh coat of periwinkle paint; the formerly yellow main house a dusty pink coat.

She doesn’t expect to sell quickly. But she is ready to go. She has started lining up new homes for the Magic City Farm’s menagerie.

For her next house, she wants something near the water, but otherwise completely different.

“I’m going to go really small,’’ she said. “I want something small and modern.’’

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