Coral Gables

City, school system clash over window redo at Coral Gables Elementary

The new white framed windows are part of the renovation work that is being done to the Historic Coral Gables Elementary School.
The new white framed windows are part of the renovation work that is being done to the Historic Coral Gables Elementary School. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The elaborately detailed, Mediterranean-style Coral Gables elementary school, built in 1923 by city father George Merrick himself, is treasured as one of the most beautiful and well-preserved school buildings in Miami-Dade, perhaps all of Florida. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has been zealously guarded under the city's famously strict preservation rules down to the minutest detail, like the original “Grammar School” lettering emblazoned in stucco over the main entrance.

So imagine city officials’ horror when they discovered Miami-Dade public schools contractors had begun ripping out its scores of original green, double-hung wood-frame windows with no notice, and installing industrial, white-aluminum-frame windows that look nothing like what they replaced. Architects and preservation officials say the look and color of the new windows is wildly inappropriate for the school’s architecture, significantly altering its appearance and damaging its historic integrity.

The window wrangling quickly led to a strained stand-off between the Gables and school-board officials.

The city red-tagged the job, issuing an emergency stop-work order and warning the contractor not to discard the historic windows that have been removed so far, which appear to be limited to the rear of the school. The contractor, T&G Constructors, rapidly complied. The wood-frame windows, which architects say can be easily restored, are sitting in stacks on the ground in a fenced-off work area behind the school while work remains at a standstill.

School officials’ response to the city?

Buzz off.

The school board’s attorneys issued a curt, one-page letter to Gables City Attorney Craig Leen on Friday. In it they contend state law allows public schools to disregard local historic-preservation regulations — even though the school has been designated as historic by Coral Gables since 1982 — and informing him they intend to proceed with the window replacement as planned because they have to finish the job before school resumes in the fall.

“The city’s Red Tag is neither valid, nor enforceable, and has no effect on the District’s ability to continue with its window replacement project,” Deputy School Board attorney Luis M. Garcia wrote before breezily signing off. “Thank you for reaching out to us. Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.”

A peeved Leen then fired off his own riposte by email, saying the city fully intends to enforce its order. In an interview, Leen said that means anything within the city’s legal power, up to and including citing the school board, possibly sending in the police or going to court to stop work. If the contractor resumes work, Leen said, his office could cite the firm and go after its license.

“We’re really stunned they did not notify us in advance, even simply in terms of comity,” Leen said, referring to schools officials. “But our law clearly applies. We want the school board to recognize our authority and respect the historical integrity of Coral Gables Elementary.”

Though the school system has its own building department and issues its own building permits under powers granted it by the state, Leen contends that does not exempt the district from its preservation ordinance.

School officials insist it does. And they say they’re unhappy the city stopped the work.

“We intend to talk to the city to see if some resolution can be arrived at,” said Miami-Dade schools chief facilities officer Jaime Torrens. “We’re not intransigent, but we have to get this done as quickly as possible.”

Torrens insists the original windows are unsalvageably deteriorated and that schools architects went to some lengths to find new ones that resemble the originals at a reasonable cost. He also disputes the conclusion of architects and preservation officials who inspected the wood window frames and say their original color was likely a green of a lighter shade than they’re now painted. The new windows, he said, are also designed to be impact-resistant for hurricanes and won’t leak air-conditioned air like the old ones.

“We feel this is a great improvement for our students and teachers,” Torrens said.

The window fiasco has alarmed preservationists, who say they’re worried about what the school district’s position portends for numerous school buildings designated as historic in Coral Gables, Miami and other local jurisdictions.

The Gables elementary window project is part of $2.5 million in renovations at the school that are being financed by the school district’s new $1.2 billion bond program, devised in part to catch up on decades’ worth of deferred repairs, maintenance and upgrades to school buildings.

Preservationists say they’re shocked by the district’s posture given its recently completed, top-to-bottom restoration of Miami High, a grand Gothic palace of learning designed by the same eminent architectural firm, Kiehnel and Elliott, responsible for Gables Elementary. The years-long, $55 million Miami High project, praised for its lavish attention to detail, reversed decades of inappropriate additions and alternations, and reopened and restored windows and open-air galleries that had been sealed off for years. Torrens did note that the Miami High project used the same replacement windows as are being installed at Gables elementary, part of the two-campus Gables Preparatory Academy K-8 school in downtown Coral Gables.

Before now, Leen and other city officials say, the school system has carefully abided by Gables preservation rules, running all work on the school building either by the city’s preservation board or staff, including the choice of new exterior paint color just a few years ago. Over the years, schools officials agreed to modify initial plans for unsympathetic alterations to Gables Elementary’s grand auditorium and doorways, and backed off a plan to erase the “Grammar School” lettering, preservationists say.

And that’s what should have happened with the window replacement, Leen said. Under city ordinances, its preservation board must approve all changes to a designated building’s exterior to safeguard historic and architectural authenticity according to standards issued by the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Those standards weigh in favor of restoring and preserving original windows whenever possible, Gables historic preservation chief Donna Spain said. If that’s not feasible, then the rules require windows that replicate the originals, even if they use modern materials like aluminum. That’s done routinely in restoration of historic homes and buildings across Miami-Dade County, and the replica windows are easily available commercially, she said.

The look of windows is important because they help define the architectural character of a building, especially a historic one, Spain said.

“It’s like a roof. It’s very specific to the architecture, and especially the 1920s Mediterranean architecture,” she said.

Architects and preservation officials who have inspected the Gables elementary project say the original windows appear to be in solid condition and restorable. And while they are not impact-resistant “hurricane” windows, they note they’ve been in place for 90 years. Restoring the originals is usually the cheapest option, they say.

The new windows, meanwhile, appear to be cheaply built and poorly detailed, with the muntins — the framing that separates panes of glass in windows — consisting of flat strips of aluminum glued on to the glass, they said. Gables rules, in contrast, require raised muntins to resemble wood construction, Spain said. The arrangement of muntins and the glass they define in the new windows not only do not match the originals, but are unevenly spaced from window to window, architects said.

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