In 1934, Miami architect Emil Ehmann moved his family into a rustic home that he built himself right next to the beach, making it the only log cabin in Miami Beach. It was isolated and surrounded by Australian pines at a time when the Beach had yet to be touched by developers. Despite the ruggedness, his family could easily walk to the beach and had their own private waterfront property with no nearby neighbors.
Over the next 83 years, the cabin off Collins Avenue near 81st Street housed different families and survived hurricanes, torrential rains and salt-water corrosion. In 1975, the cabin functioned as a plant nursery, holding daily programs for adults with mental disabilities. But due to budget cuts, the city, which owns the house and the land, closed the nursery in 2011.
For the past six years, it has been left to deteriorate.
Now Ehmann’s former home is in the middle of a battle for its fate: The city has voted to demolish it as a termite-infested eyesore, in preparation for future development. That has sparked a fight by community activists, who say the cabin is a part of the city’s history and should be preserved.
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The city’s decision was based on two evaluations that concluded the cabin was not salvageable and the cost of renovating it prohibitive.
“We had estimates done about what restoration would cost and the estimation came back over half a million. The cost to demolish is $15,000,” City Commissioner Ricky Arriola said.
BEA Architects, a firm the city hired to evaluate the cabin’s condition, said in May the house was “not suitable for public occupancy.” The firm’s report included pictures of the cabin’s extensive wood rot and termites, and said it is “reportedly infected with fleas and vermin.”
“We were really not presented with any option other than building a new log cabin from scratch,” City Commissioner John Elizabeth Aleman said. “It was pretty clear from the BEA reports that there was no real potential to re-salvage the building.”
On June 16, commissioners voted to recommend demolition.
That woke up the opposition.
“This is demolition by neglect on the city’s part,” said Kirk Paskal, who has lived in North Beach for more than 10 years and bikes past the cabin every week on his way to the beach. “The cabin is an irreplaceable piece of history.”
And now there’s another player in the controversy — Della Heiman, founder and CEO of Wynwood Yard, the outdoor space that merges food, drink, music and design with an emphasis on local vendors.
In April, Arriola was so excited by the success of Wynwood Yard that he asked Heiman about creating a similar community experience in North Beach, before the city moves to redevelop the area in the next few years.
She came up with a plan that features outdoor music venues, event spaces, pop-up food carts and garden installations — as well as the log cabin. The Yard included it in the drawings, to possibly use it as an alternative space if the city moved forward with renovations.
“They were talking about using it as a yoga studio or an art gallery,” Paskal said. “They supported the community’s interest in keeping the log cabin.”
Heiman said she will go along with whatever the city decides.
Since the commissioners’ vote, historians from the Miami-Dade County Historic Preservation Board have submitted letters in support of saving the cabin.
The opposition, and the historians’ push-back, have given the city cold feet. Aleman and Arriola, members of the city’s finance committee that made the original recommendation to tear down the cabin, think maybe they acted too hastily.
“It’s a structure made entirely of natural elements that has withstood a hundred years despite hurricanes and neglect,” Arriola said. “There are a lot of people, including myself, who think it is worth restoring.”
“Let me be clear: We will not be demolishing the cabin,” Arriola said.
But still, he has no clue how the city will pay for saving it.
“The community is willing to invest half a million to restore it and now we have to figure out how to fund this,” Arriola said. The finance committee has decided to take up the fate of the cabin again at its next meeting later this month.
That hefty cost of renovation doesn’t seem to worry community members who are dedicated to saving it.
“It is a fixture, and when you see the cabin it screams North Beach, like our fountain,” said Kimberlee Blecha, 40, who was an intern at the nursery adult program. “It is part of the heart of our community. There is no replacing it.”