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History, not opinion, merits preservation

In 1991, my husband, an architect, won a Fulbright grant to study the work of a mid-20th century Catalan architect who, among other things, designed artist Joan Miro's private studio in Palma de Mallorca. The studio had been closed and mostly untouched after the artist's death eight years earlier. So when his widow granted us permission to visit, and an aide swung open the door to the small structure, we were in awe.

Some half-dozen unfinished paintings remained as they were when the famed surrealist last touched them. Paint brushes stood petrified in long-dried paint wells. Dozens of letters were scattered on Miro's desk, some opened, most not. And as my husband carefully photographed the building's fluid lines, I wallowed in the historic significance of what lay inside -- taking in the last bursts of color that inspired the artist, scouring the return addresses on the letters, feasting on the unfinished paintings. Even if the structure had had no architectural merit, its historic value was obvious.

MATTER OF OPINION

Unfortunately, determining a building's merit isn't always so easy. As the city of Miami heads into debates about the value of preserving the signature Bacardi buildings on Biscayne Boulevard, there's no better time to ponder our approach to historic preservation.

And if the city of Miami adopts Miami 21, a proposal for new zoning and planning rules, we could see an increase in the number of properties considered for historic designation. Why? Miami 21, about to enter hearings, contains a provision that allows building rights to be transferred from a historically designated property to another site. It also would allow construction of a building about twice as large as what could have been built at the original site. The change would provide a financial boost for many owners who have their sites designated as historic.

Part of the complexity in determining which buildings to save stems from the subjective nature of the issue. Just compare the current public support for preserving Bacardi's two signature buildings with the eerie obscurity in which Richard Nixon's former Key Biscayne home was razed five years ago.

While many people believe there are set-in-stone rules, such as an age requirement for the structure, that's not really the case, notes Becky Roper Matkov, executive director of the Dade Heritage Trust, a not-for-profit organization that advocates for historic preservation.

RAZED HISTORY

To be worth saving, she says, a building typically needs at least one of two qualities: great architecture or the ability to engender a wonderful feeling in the community. The Bacardi buildings, fine showcases of mid-century modernism, have both. The Nixon compound had neither. Yet it was rich with historic value. Known as the Florida White House or the Winter White House, the property was once not only home to a U.S. president, but also reportedly where Nixon first heard about the infamous Watergate break-in.

"So many people were in the forget-Nixon mode that you didn't have the groundswell of support," says Matkov says of the lack of interest in -- or even discussion about -- saving the compound.

But isn't unpleasant history, if significant, equally worthy of preservation? Five years ago, the answer wasn't clear. Today, Matkov has a different take: "We didn't step forward on that as we should have," she says.

In that, the Nixon compound distinguishes itself yet again: It's among the few historic properties that can teach us lessons long after being razed.

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