Coconut Grove

These houses are old, humble and made of wood. They’re also now historic landmarks.

A 1936 shotgun house on Charles Avenue in west Coconut Grove was one of the 50 wood-frame homes in the historically black neighborhood that had been proposed by the city of Miami for designation as a protected landmark.
A 1936 shotgun house on Charles Avenue in west Coconut Grove was one of the 50 wood-frame homes in the historically black neighborhood that had been proposed by the city of Miami for designation as a protected landmark. Miami Herald

Nearly four dozen humble “shotgun” and wood-frame homes scattered across West Coconut Grove have been declared historic landmarks by Miami’s preservation board, capping a controversial city effort to salvage some last remnants of the imperiled historically black neighborhood.

The board’s approval of multiple historic designations represents a win for preservationists, some West Grove activists and City of Miami Commissioner Ken Russell, who represents the neighborhood and championed the move to slow ongoing gentrification.

But it may not be the final word on some of the houses. At least several owners indicated they will appeal the designation of their properties to the city commission. Others urged the city to come up with ways to help owners of newly designated houses, many of them elderly or poor, pay for maintenance and renovations.

The roster of homes that ended up with historic designation was shorter than the original list of more than 50 proposed by the city preservation office.

In a hearing that lasted about seven hours, preservation officials and the board dropped about a dozen houses from an initial list proposed for protection after concluding the structures did not meet strict criteria for inclusion.

A board majority, though, found that many more did meet the criteria. The designation now bars demolition of the homes. Though it does not force owners to undertake repairs or renovations, designation does require that exterior changes or additions be architecturally and historically congruent with the original structure.

Some preservationists and Grove residents have long argued for protecting the neighborhood’s wood-frame homes as a way of salvaging its historic legacy, but only a handful were designated landmarks until now. Saving the homes took on new urgency as developers began buying and demolishing them to build new modernist homes few in the West Grove can afford.

The simple wooden houses on the protected list, some a century old, harken to the West Grove’s early years. Miami’s oldest surviving black neighborhood, it was once legally segregated from the wealthier white village of Coconut Grove to its south and east.

The West Grove was originally settled by Bahamian immigrants who were later joined by blacks migrating from the American South. Both groups brought their building traditions to the West Grove. The newly designated houses include bungalows, cottages and so-called shotguns — long, narrow houses in which rooms are lined up front to back.

Preservationists say designation will help residents and owners because historic homes and buildings tend to rise significantly in value. They point to examples in other areas of Miami where historic districts have helped turn around depressed areas, including Morningside, the city’s first.

But the proposed designations split the neighborhood, with some property owners and residents bitterly objecting to designation. Some complained that the houses are hard and expensive to maintain, repair and insure.

Longtime residents, as well as some investors who bought wood-frame homes to rent or redevelop, complained that designation would unfairly deprive them of the chance to sell for the highest possible price as teardowns.

“They’re going to kill the value of our houses,” said J.B. Diederich, an investor who is fixing up two shotgun houses in the West Grove, in an interview after the hearing, which concluded around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday.

Diederich said he has no intention of demolishing the houses but worries about the additional burden of meeting strict historic preservation rules and the difficulty in selling properties that have been designated historic, especially without incentives in place to help property owners.

The city is considering several programs that could help West Grove homeowners financially, including a zoning revamp that would allow some owners of wood-frame homes to build separate rental units in the back yard, and creation of a tax district that could generate money for renovation grants and loans.

Because the houses are scattered, it wasn’t possible to create a unified historic district, like Morningside or South Beach. The city commission approved an idea for the creation of “thematic” groups of designations that would cover a particular architectural style or type of construction. Such thematic designations have been used in other cities, including neighboring Coral Gables.

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