After two decades of trying to save a historic wood and coral rock cabin with a Walden-like feel, preservationists woke up Thursday morning to discover the hand-built home of Harry Troeger was reduced to rocks.
“It’s a pile of rubble,” said Amy Creekmur, a friend of Harry’s who has fought for years to defend the cabin. “I’m numb, devastated. I ran down there this morning and it’s just rubble.’’
The developer who had bought the property — a one-room cabin just east of South Dixie Highway and 156th Street in Palmetto Bay — demolished the home between Wednesday and Thursday morning. The county’s historic preservation board had ruled the home could not be demolished; it had to “carefully deconstructed,” that is, removed piece by piece with the salvaged pieces returned to the Friends of Harry, the group that has fought for decades to preserve the property.
Guillermo Alvarez, a manager with Turquino Development Group, wouldn’t comment on whether or not the property had been demolished with care.
Friends of Harry say it wasn’t.
“In no sense was the property ‘carefully deconstructed,’” said Bartholomew Motes, an attorney representing Friends of Harry.
Kathleen Kauffman, chief of the county’s historic preservation board, said Friday the developer had complied with the process and saved large chunks of coral rock.
“They certainly salvaged a huge portion of this house. The fact that they were able to get as much of the coral rock signifies to me they didn't just take a wrecking ball to the site,” Kauffman said Friday. “To my knowledge they have complied. That kind of salvage takes care and intention.
“Careful deconstruction is in the eye of the beholder,” she said.
Kauffman said she did not know the house would be demolished Thursday.
Friends of Harry had appealed the matter with the County Commission, which was slated to hear the case on Dec.2. Late Friday, a county spokeswoman said the commission will still hear the appeal at that date.
The demolition is the latest chapter in a two-decade battle to protect the home.
Troeger built the cabin, which was loosely divided into a wash room, bedroom and reading room, by hand out of coral rock and Dade County pine in 1949. Troeger, who lived in the home for nearly 60 years, lived a simple life: no electricity, no car, no running water, only a pump he built himself. The cabin walls were lined with books about Buddhism and works by Emerson.
In 1998, the county deemed the home “unsafe” and threatened to tear it down. When friends and neighbors rallied, the county designated the home as historic and Troeger was allowed to live out his life in his home. In 2008, he died in his bed at age 92.
Since then, the property has deteriorated, gathering complaints from neighbors who say the overgrown foliage has damaged their fences and that the home has attracted trespassers.
Last July, the county auctioned off the property because of unpaid property taxes. Turquino bought the 7,260-square-foot lot and 795-square-foot cabin for $77,100. Recent home sales within a 15-block radius range from $380,000 to $845,000.
Despite cries from Friends of Harry, the county’s Historic Preservation Board green-lighted the deconstruction in October. The group filed an appeal, asking the county to reverse the decision and give them more time to figure out how to save the property. The appeal, however, didn’t grant an automatic stay on the demolition.
“Mr. Alvarez exploited the fact that the county takes time to take action on these things,” Motes said. “It’s the classic story of aggressive money interests.”
Alvarez said his firm had followed the law.
“We informed them of our intentions. We weren’t going to stop unless we heard otherwise from the authorities,” Alvarez said. “There’s no reason for me to.”
Creekmur said the group will go ahead with the appeal, if only to seek sanctions against the developer.
“What are the penalties here?” she said. “We can’t just pat his hand and then let him build his McMansion.”