Coconut Grove

Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ home belongs to you. The neighbors don’t want you to see it.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas, then 93, on the back patio of her Coconut Grove cottage in 1983.
Marjory Stoneman Douglas, then 93, on the back patio of her Coconut Grove cottage in 1983. Miami Herald file

The picturesque Coconut Grove cottage where Marjory Stoneman Douglas lived and worked most of her life belongs to you, the people of Florida.

In this small house, barely 900 square feet, the pioneering journalist, feminist and environmentalist wrote her signature work, The Everglades: River of Grass. There she held court and rallied support for conservation of the Everglades until her death in 1998, at age 108.

The cottage is even a designated National Historic Landmark, added in 2015 to that rarefied, official list of the most significant sites across the United Sates.

You can’t visit, though. There’s not so much as a plaque at 3744 Stewart Ave. to commemorate one of the most famous and consequential Floridians in history.

Today, as the massacre at the school named in her honor propels Stoneman Douglas’ name around the world under a tragic shadow, her quaint old South Grove home — owned by the state of Florida — is in poor shape, vacant and unused. For at least a decade, vociferous objections from a group of neighbors worried that visitors would spoil their affluent, leafy residential oasis have foiled plans to open the house to the public, even on a limited basis.

Now things may be changing.

The state parks agency, which manages the property, has been tasked by Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet with finding an appropriate and permanent use for the historic house, and may be at long last inching toward a plan that includes some form of controlled public access.

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The Marjory Stoneman Douglas cottage in Coconut Grove in an undated photo. Peter Andrew Bosch Miami Herald

The timing is coincidental. Public meetings were scheduled to take place the day after the Parkland shootings but were postponed until this week after a former student shot and killed 17 students and educators at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High with a semi-automatic rifle on Feb. 14.

On Tuesday, after a daylong workshop with interested “stakeholders,” including Grove residents who have long lobbied for the house to be opened to visitors and neighbors who opposed the idea, park officials said they appear to have forged a consensus for “very limited” public access.

The state is also about to embark on badly needed interior renovations following termite treatment and removal of an extensive mold infestation — caused in part by an air-conditioning failure — that required the removal of plaster, walls and the cabinets from Stoneman Douglas’ tiny kitchen.

At an open forum Tuesday evening at the Coconut Grove Sailing Club after the conclusion of the closed workshop, there was clear and strong support for public access to the house, judging from comments from attendees and “stickies” placed on poster boards describing alternatives for use of the house.

“We should all be proud her home is still there,” said former local TV news anchor Jill Beach, who recalled an interview she once conducted with Stoneman Douglas at the home. “It’s a shame what’s happened to it. It would be a value to South Florida to have it back the way it was. As a native Floridian, I should be able to visit her house.”

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Marjory Stoneman Douglas outside her home in Coconut Grove in 1978. Joe Rimkus Jr. Miami Herald

Just how that might work out is yet to be determined, said Sine Murray, a senior planner for the state park service. She promised to come back with a fleshed-out plan in 18 months. The goal is to come up with a strategy that allows use of the house for the public to learn about Stoneman Douglas’ life and work as a writer and advocate, she said.

“How do we best tell Marjory’s story? That’s definitely a poignant point now that the high school that bears her name has created such activism,” Murray said, alluding to Stoneman Douglas students’ forceful advocacy for augmented gun control after last month’s fatal shootings.

It’s a spirit that preservationist Connie Crowther said Stoneman Douglas would have appreciated.

“She would be leading the charge,” Crowther said in an interview after the meeting. “She was a formidable advocate, no matter the cause.”

Grove activist Glenn Terry and others have proposed escorted visits by small groups, perhaps limited to 10 people just a couple of days a week, similar to the visitation regime at the nearby Barnacle State Park. Some backers of opening the house say at least some of Stoneman Douglas’ furnishings may be available to be returned to the house.

The house is so small that allowing more people in would likely prove impractical and risk too much wear and tear on the wood-frame cottage, even supporters of public access say.

Another idea that received support: Making the house available for a writer-in-residence program. The cottage had for a time housed rangers from the Barnacle who acted as caretakers before it became uninhabitable.

What is definitely off the table, said Barnacle park manager Katrina Boler, is an old idea to move the house elsewhere. Vocal criticism killed a plan in 2007 to chop up the house and move it to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in order to open it to the public, and it won’t be revived, she said. That scheme was devised in part because neighbors had successfully blocked efforts to allow the public to see the house.

But separating the house from its surroundings would curtail its significance and likely mean loss of its historic landmark status, Boler said. Stoneman Douglas wrote about how the large trees and lush greenery surrounding the house inspired her.

“Douglas would often write while seated on the open back patio, listening to songbirds and marveling at the trees in the evening twilight,” reads the national landmark report on the house. “Later in her life, when infirmity inhibited her movement, she simply held press conferences on environmental issues on the house’s front lawn, drawing scores of media and important political figures.”

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In 1990, 100-year-old Marjory Stoneman Douglas publicly endorsed future Florida Gov. Lawton Chiles on the front yard of her Coconut Grove home. Candace Barbot Miami Herald

Just to what degree objecting neighbors have modified their opposition is unclear. Next-door neighbor John Freud, for years one of the staunchest objectors to almost any public use of the Stoneman Douglas house, refused to take a reporter’s card or answer questions after Tuesday’s public meeting. “I’m not interested in talking to the press,” he said.

Another neighbor at the meeting, who gave his name only as Mark, also declined to speak with a reporter. He did take a card, promising to have another neighbor call. No one did.

The t-shaped house is little changed from the day Stoneman Douglas built it in 1926. It was designed for her by architect George Hyde in a style that recalls a rustic English cottage in the Cotswolds countryside, complete with half-timbered exterior walls and a sloping roof covered in wood shingles.

Inside is one large room, which in her lifetime was dominated by Stoneman Douglas’ desk, and a small back bedroom or utility room. Her miniscule kitchen had a fridge, sink, counters and cabinets but lacked a stove: she used a hot plate and a toaster to warm food, friends say.

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Marjory Stoneman Douglas at her desk inside her Coconut Grove home. Albert Coya Miami Herald

The blunt-spoken Stoneman Douglas, who lived alone after a youthful marriage failed, welcomed visitors for conversation, lively discussions and strategy sessions, often sitting at her desk in her book-filled main room. As her vision began to fail, she also appreciated having friends and volunteers come by to read to her, like Theodora Long, who today manages the nature center in Crandon Park on Key Biscayne that’s named after Stoneman Douglas.

Furnishings, like the cottage, were simple, belying the sophistication of Stoneman Douglas’ mind, friends and acquaintances say.

“She lived simply, but she was not a simple woman,” recalled Beach, the former news anchor.

At 5 p.m., every day, Beach added, Stoneman Douglas had cocktail hour. She famously favored Scotch. Guests would also get peanuts in jars, Beach said.

“You just had to stay,” she recalled.

Sallye Jude, a preservationist and Stoneman Douglas friend, arranged the state’s purchase of the house in 1991 under the condition that its occupant be allowed to live out the remainder of her life there.

But the fate of the house became a contentious issue after Stoneman Douglas’ death.

A land trust managed by Jude administered the house and bought a cottage next door with the idea of creating a center dedicated to Stoneman Douglas’ life, but that did not come to fruition amid objections from local residents.

After numerous complaints about the rundown condition of the properties, the next-door cottage was torn down and the state took over management of the Stoneman Douglas cottage. The land trust still owns the now vacant lot abutting it, and has offered it to the state for use in conjunction with the cottage, possibly for parking, Jude said. That could alleviate neighbors’ concerns that visitors would park on their street or swales.

Long hopes her old friend’s house will soon receive visitors again, by appointment, to bask in the true spirit of Marjory Stoneman Douglas’ legacy.

“Now, when you Google Marjory Stoneman Douglas, nothing but bad news comes,” Long said. “But she used to be all about good news. That’s the way she should be remembered.”

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