Miami-Dade County

To save historic Miami church building, developer would put garage on the roof

The entrance of the First Church of Christ Scientist located on Biscayne Boulevard. The church is regarded as one of Miami's most beautiful buildings, but developers are proposing changes to the property that have preservations unsure of how best to use the under-utilized space.
The entrance of the First Church of Christ Scientist located on Biscayne Boulevard. The church is regarded as one of Miami's most beautiful buildings, but developers are proposing changes to the property that have preservations unsure of how best to use the under-utilized space. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The old Christian Science church on Biscayne Boulevard, a neoclassical masterwork by an august boom-era architect that many regard as one of the most beautiful buildings in Miami, is in impeccably good shape. Yet it sits lonely, unused and at risk of demolition.

Now a developer has come up with an unusual proposal for the site at Biscayne and 19th Street that has preservationists tied up in knots.

The good news: The developer, Fifteen Group, would keep the 1925 First Church of Christ Scientist, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, renovate it inside and out, retain nearly all its original architectural details, and convert its splendid domed sanctuary to retail use. The group would also apply for local historic designation, meaning the building would be legally protected in perpetuity.

The not-so-unequivocally-great news: To do so, the developer also proposes to sink columns through the former church, though not the sanctuary, to hold up a big glass-covered parking garage and pool deck that would be suspended over it. The garage would be attached to a rounded residential tower that would rise on a sliver of land next to and partially over the historic building.

Because the church building occupies most of the property, there’s no other way to accommodate the 478 parking spaces required to make the project work, the developer’s architects said.

When the architects, ADD Inc./Stantec and preservation specialist Richard Heisenbottle, presented the plan to Miami’s historic preservation board last week, it split the panel down the middle, with some members looking like they’d choked on their corn flakes.

It wasn’t so much the concept, which the board narrowly and tentatively endorsed after failing to agree on a stronger ratification, but the sheer size and positioning of the garage that some preservationists on the dais and in the audience found hard to swallow.

As the website Curbed Miami put it, in the architectural renderings, which typically depict a plan in the best light, the seven-story garage appears to “crush” the former church, which stands the equivalent of three stories with its grand stairway entrance and portico and six soaring Ionic columns.

“It reminds me of Carmen Miranda, who was a pretty girl, but she had this big hat with fruit on it, and I would forget she was a pretty girl,” said board member Hugh Ryan in a reference to the mid-20th-century Brazilian singer, drawing guffaws from the preservation-minded audience at Miami City Hall.

And yet the scheme may be the best hope of preserving and resuscitating the church building, considered one of the best designed by eminent Miami architect August Geiger. In the 1920s and ’30s, Geiger, who was Miami Beach developer Carl Fisher’s favorite architect and the official architect for the Dade County school board, not only collaborated on the Dade County Courthouse but also designed at least a half dozen other prominent local buildings that are on the National Register — a remarkable record for any architect.

“Geiger was amazing,” Heisenbottle told the preservation board.

The redevelopment plan is the result of an uncommon legal circumstance.

The church’s listing on the National Register confers no legal protection. But in the 1980s the Miami City Commission — which at the time made preservation decisions that are now made by the preservation board — voted down historic designation after the Christian Science church objected.

Because that rejection was a final decision and not appealed, Assistant City Attorney Rafael Suarez-Rivas wrote in a memo, it means that the city can’t designate it now absent owner consent — something not required for historic designation under normal circumstances. And it probably doesn’t matter legally that the church, which sold the building in 2013 to a different investment group, no longer owns it, Suarez-Rivas wrote.

The newest owners, who bought the building late last year from the investment group, are not only amenable to the idea of preserving it, but went to the city with a proposal to have it designated historic, so long as the preservation board signs off on a compromise along the lines of what they outlined last week.

The developer’s architects told the board that they had sketched out many different designs and met numerous times with city planners before settling on their current proposal as the best possible version. The city preservation officer, Megan Schmitt, recommended that the board approve the plan.

Their blueprint has the garage elevated off the church building’s roof and has it set back 16 feet from its front to create a clear separation between the two, they said. The garage would be sheathed in translucent glass to give it a light look and conceal its interior.

“We’re trying to find a balance here,” ADD Inc. Miami director Jonathan Cardello told the board.

Cardello and Heisenbottle said tight lot constraints left them no other good alternatives to simply demolishing the historic building — something they said the developers don’t want to do because they believe keeping the old church would substantially increase their project’s value and appeal. The developers say a grocery they won’t identify is interested in the space, even though there is a new Publix a block away, leading to speculation that it may be a Trader Joe’s.

To accommodate the 46-story tower, the developer would demolish the old Christian Science reading room next door, a later structure that’s not architecturally significant, and use up a surface parking lot to its rear. The tower’s footprint would be too narrow to accommodate a parking deck, they say.

The developer has no room to expand because a relatively new mixed-use complex directly to the south fills the rest of the block.

The scenario left preservationists in a quandary.

“We’re stuck in a difficult situation,” said Daniel Ciraldo, preservation officer for the Miami Design Preservation League. “I’m not really sure what else could be done.”

It was clear from the hearing that, had the building been designated historic previously, the scheme would likely not pass board muster in its present form. Though most board members were receptive to the idea of combining old and new, several said the garage seemed to overwhelm the historic building, damaging its architectural integrity — a critical standard in historic preservation.

“That garage tremendously impacts the integrity of a building that everyone knows and is super-qualified for historic designation,” board member Jorge Kuperman, an architect, told Cardello to applause from the audience. “This is a great effort, but you guys can do better. When you look up, it’s a garage on top of the church. It’s not right.”

Kuperman and others said they might be willing to accept the scheme if the garage’s size were reduced and the new structure set further back from the edges of the historic building to lessen its impact. They also asked for additional renderings showing how the church building and garage combination would look like from a pedestrian’s viewpoint.

After a motion to move forward with the blueprint failed on a 4-4 vote, the board then voted 5-3 to ask the developer to return with a revised plan for reconsideration. Cardello said he would tweak the design, but also warned that he was unlikely to come back with a radically different scheme.

Some other local buildings designed by architect August Geiger:

The Alamo (original Jackson Hospital), Miami

Chase Federal (Banana Republic store), Lincoln Road Mall, Miami Beach

Miami Beach developer Carl Fisher’s house, Miami Beach

Villa Serena, William Jennings Bryan’s house near Vizcaya, Miami

Miami Woman’s Club

Hindu Temple House, Spring Garden, Miami

Shenandoah Middle School and Coral Way Elementary School, Miami

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