Miami-Dade County

Fight to save wooden cabin pits Walden vs. suburbia in Palmetto Bay

Harry Troeger, 92, called a hermit by some of his neighbors, lives off his land, no running water or electricity, in a wooden cabin he built in 1949. Troeger is pictured in 1998.
Harry Troeger, 92, called a hermit by some of his neighbors, lives off his land, no running water or electricity, in a wooden cabin he built in 1949. Troeger is pictured in 1998. MIAMI HERALD FILE

When Harry Troeger built his house out of Dade County pine and coral rock with little more than his hands and a hammer, he based the design on the principle that “where air and light enter, no doctor ever does.”

It was never doctors who threatened Harry or his home.

For decades, the Troeger House — a one-room wooden cabin just east of South Dixie Highway and 156th Street in Palmetto Bay— has been at the center of a struggle between a Walden-like way of life and the three-bedroom, two-bath suburban staple.

Twenty-five years ago, county bulldozers threatened the 65-year-old home. Now, a developer wants to build a two-story home on its ashes. Backed by the county’s historic preservation board, the developer says the home is unsafe — a collection of code violations and rotting wood.

“The property is in such bad condition, poor care and in a bad state that it is an unattractive nuisance,” said Guillermo Alvarez of Turquino Development Group, which purchased the property in July for about $77,000, considerably less than recent sales of nearby homes.

To those seeking to save the home, bulldozing the 795-square foot cabin, which is loosely divided into a wash room, bedroom and reading room, is tantamount to erasing a rare slice of history. The county had designated the home as historic in 1999.

“Destroying the cabin is destroying something that represents ecology, history, a man’s attempt to live with nature. That should be respected,” said Rick Ferrer, who used to sit on the county preservation board and studies historic structures. “Such a unique man, such a unique story, and we’re going to get rid of it because it doesn’t look like everything else around here.”

The saga began in 1949, when a younger Harry paid $250, plus $35 in closing costs, to buy the 7,260-square- foot lot at 8940 SW 156th St. During the day, Harry built the home; at night, he worked at a local movie theater as a doorman. For nearly 60 years, Harry lived in the home, which had no electricity or running water, only a pump he built himself.

Harry, who hailed from South Bend, Indiana, was a literate man; the cabin walls were lined with books about Buddhism and works by Emerson.

“I would stop by to chat for five minutes, and before I knew it hours had passed,” said Amy Creekmur, a member of Friends of Harry, a group of residents who have defended Harry and the home for almost three decades. “He was green before green architecture existed. He was into Buddhism when people couldn’t even spell that in this country. He was fascinating.”

Harry died in 2008 at age 92. Friends divided his ashes among them — some were spread over Biscayne Bay, others released by a skydiver.

Bulldozers and Naked Dancing

About a decade before Harry died, the county designated the house as a historic structure for being “significant, architecturally and culturally.”

But as the house lay unattended and overgrown, the county had second thoughts. Last month, the county’s Historic Preservation Board ruled the developer could deconstruct the house, that is, tear it down bit by bit and give the pieces to Harry’s friends.

“I’m still in shock, and I’m still numb,” Creekmur said. “I really feel that we just got the rug pulled out from underneath us.”

Creekmur was there in 1998 when county inspectors deemed the home unsafe and threatened to demolish it. Tree branches were growing inside the home, nearing the roof. The frame had begun to rot.

After an article was published in the Miami Herald detailing Harry’s predicament with county inspectors, strangers poured in. More than 50 readers responded to the article, and Creekmur logged more than a hundred calls. A young filmmaker made a documentary about Harry, titled Golden Mist.

“It brought forth all kinds of responses you never would have imagined,” Harry Troeger told the Miami Herald in 1999. “One lady came to see me and said she would dance naked in front of the bulldozers.’”

In the end, there was no need for naked dancing. Volunteers fixed the roof and trimmed the overgrown yard.

Former Miami-Dade Commissioner Katy Sorenson called off the bulldozers.

“He had some problems, but he was living very happily,” Sorenson recalled. “I wanted to see if we could find a solution that was agreeable to everyone.’’

Tinder Box

Harry Troeger lived out his life in the cabin. It was the life of a man who never owned a car, who took off on a one-year trek to bathe in the Ganges River in India and who didn’t have locks on his handmade doors.

The year he died, Creekmur said she paid the property tax bill. After that, she says bills stopped coming. She assumed the mail was being sent to Troeger’s next of kin, a sister who lives in Colorado. The Herald could not reach Harry’s sister for comment.

Eventually, the county auctioned off the property. Turquino bought the lot and home on July8 of this year for $77,100. Recent home sales within a 15-block radius range from $380,000 to $845,000.

Jose Antonio Alvarez, a Turquino manager, said when he bought the property, he didn’t know it had a historic designation.

“The title search did not say anything about this being a historic site,” Alvarez said. “When I went to pay fees to Palmetto Bay, someone looked at the address and said, “That’s the Harry Troeger house. There might be a problem.”

At the September meeting of the county’s historic preservation board, Alvarez and his son, Guillermo Alvarez, asked the county for a demolition permit.

Ultimately, the historic preservation staff, headed by Kathleen Kauffman, recommended a “careful deconstruction” of the home. The board voted unanimously to go ahead with the “deconstruction.’’

The Alvarezes say that while the cabin is an impressive feat, they say the man who built it wouldn’t oppose their proposed two-story home.

“He said himself, ‘This isn’t a historical site; it’s an old house,’” Jose Antonio Alvarez said, referring to what Harry said in a Sun-Sentinel article from 1998.

Palmetto Bay code enforcement officials have also taken issue with the cabin and surrounding land. Alan White, of the Palmetto Bay building department, said invasive, exotic species are encroaching on utility lines.

“During the dry season, the property is also a tinder box. It’s an accident waiting to happen,” White said. “We have sent a bunch of unsafe notices.”

Three neighbors who live around the home have sent letters to the county’s historic board supporting the demolition. One letter came from Alex Fuentewho has lived next door for almost two decades.

“We can’t wait until they tear it down,” Fuente said. For years, he says, the cabin’s overgrown foliage has dumped leaves onto his backyard patio and pool; a leaning tree destroyed a portion of his picket fence.

“When Harry died, we thought, this might be the end of it. But it’s been years and nothing,” he said.

Time and Money

Kauffman, the historic board chief, said the board began to prompt Friends of Harry to come up with solutions after residents began complaining about a year ago. Kauffman maintains the friends have not acted quickly enough to secure the home, even after she told them last November the property was neglected and unsafe.

Creekmur argues it is the county’s responsibility to take care of the historic structure.

“We’re just a group of residents who earn regular salaries. It shouldn’t be up to us or even the developer to come up with all of the solutions,” Creekmur said.

The group proposed moving the cabin, possibly placing it next to the Bethel House African-Bahamian Museum in Perrine in south Miami-Dade. Helen Gage, the museum’s director, said she would welcome Harry’s cabin.

“We have the space for Harry’s house. We’ll bring it here if they let us,” she said.

Friends of Harry has met with Russell Building Movers Consulting, which relocated the Bethel House. Keith Kleppinger, who works with the company, estimated the move would cost from $60,000 to $95,000.

“It’s an eggshell to try to move it,” Kleppinger said. “I don’t consider it Biblical, but heroic — the effort it’s going to take to move it. It’s way above the normal, but anything is possible if you throw enough money at it.”

The Friends of Harry can’t afford the move. They proposed applying for a grant to help finance it. Kauffman said applying for a grant is a lengthy process and didn’t recommend it.

The group also proposed creating a passive park on the property. Kauffman rejected that as well, saying it would take too long.

Jose Antonio Alvarez, the developer, said any delay would be “an undue hardship.” He said he would sell the property for the price he bought it, plus any costs he has incurred up to the point of the sale. He did not estimate how much that would be, but his company has paid for tree and plant removal around the cabin, among other things.

On Oct. 31, the Friends of Harry filed an appeal with the county asking commissioners to delay the home’s demolition until commissioners could rule on the appeal.

“Preservation is never quick, so you need patience. To make things work, you need time,” Ferrer said.

Meanwhile, the historic board gave the Friends of Harry until Oct.31 to retrieve Harry’s belongings from the home. Five of Harry’s friends came with two pickup trucks and combed the place for mementos.

“Harry was an artist,” Creekmur said. “The house was full of his paintings. Even his window screens were covered in his artwork.

“We found a pair of shoes he made out of rubber from car tires,” Creekmur said.

His friends collected what they could, but Creekmur said they have not given up on saving the cabin.

“It didn’t feel right,” Creekmur said, “but we’re trying to save what we can.”