A grand dame from a bygone era sits lonely and neglected on her perch overlooking Biscayne Bay.
The Miami Women’s Club, once an elegant hub for the city’s influential female leaders, has been empty for nearly a decade. Unless you count the homeless people who lived there for a while. Or the tow-truck operators who filled her parking lot with captured cars.
The 87-year-old Spanish Renaissance building, one of the first in Florida to be listed on the National Register of Historic Places, finally has a partner who promises to restore her to her former glory, but skeptical neighbors have raised questions about intentions for the elderly lady, and whether she will be taken advantage of in yet another Miami story that devolves into the forsaking of our past for profit.
Christopher Hodgkins is concerned about the future of the club at 1737 N. Bayshore Dr., adjacent to Margaret Pace Park in the Omni District. He lives next door at the Grand condominium tower. He says the plan of the developer, the Heafey Group, to remove 10 trees and expand the parking lot in front of the building is a bad sign of what’s in store, which includes the installation of two upscale restaurants, a back deck and an enclosed rooftop lounge.
“It’s like the song: ‘They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,’” Hodgkins said. “We don’t need more parking in an area that is already a concrete jungle. Why would you chainsaw the oldest trees in the neighborhood rather than preserve them and the legacy of the club?”
Margaret Pace, a former club vice president, fought development of the adjoining bayfront green space, and Pace Park — now one of the most popular in Miami — was named in her honor.
Hodgkins has filed an appeal of the city’s approval of Heafey’s plans for the two-acre, 33,000-square-foot property.
“We are not opposed to revitalizing and using this wonderful building,” said Hodgkins, president of the Omni Bayshore Citizen Action group. “But it is a jewel that must be treated with respect. We owe it to Margaret Pace and the club founders to save the history and environment of the place.”
Hodgkins isn’t confident because of the recent track record of the Heafey Group, run by president Pierre Heafey of Canada, who also owns the Doubletree by Hilton Grand Hotel, dozens of condos in the Grand and the shopping center at 1717 N. Bayshore Dr., where he lives part time. After Heafey was granted a 90-year lease of the club by club members in 2015, he turned the lot into an illegal commercial parking and towing operation. The city cited him for seven code violations.
“It was a litter-filled eyesore that looked like a tow lot in Medley,” Hodgkins said. As for the Grand’s disjointed jumble of boutiques, cafes, salons and phone repair, tobacco, swimsuit and luxury car rental shops, “It looks like a Swap Shop. It’s tacky,” said Hodgkins, who was CEO of the Miami Tunnel project. “Nobody wants that for the club interior.”
Heafey says he has first-class plans for the five-story building, where the club will maintain control of the third floor. He’s hired respected architect Richard Heisenbottle.
“We want to bring that building back to life and let the community in,” said Carmine Zayoun, vice president of the Heafey Group, who also lives part time in the Grand. “We’re doing a positive thing for the club, which has been in desperate need of reinvention.”
Heafey is investing at least $8 million in restoration. Zayoun said “two very well-known restaurateurs will open two high-end restaurants” and that the rooftop and deck will be part of the restaurants, not loud nightclubs. A link in Miami’s Baywalk will be completed where there is now a seawall. But the cypress, banyan, gumbo limbo, royal poinciana and seagrape trees will be removed to expand parking from 40 to 90 spaces.
“As with any redevelopment we’d love to keep all the trees but we will replant to make up for the loss,” Zayoun said.
He said the company stopped using the lot for paid parking after the city ordered it to cease in July. The city’s Historic and Environmental Preservation Board unanimously granted Heafey’s request for site plan waivers and Heafey was ready to proceed until Hodgkins appealed.
“We feel Mr. Hodgkins is mounting a vendetta against the president of our company and attempting to put a wrench in the plans,” Zayoun said. “We don’t want to argue. We live there, too. We want to get the project going.”
Miami Women’s Club President Linda Joseph said Heafey was the best option when the club was in financial straits. They trust him.
“It’s a perfect partnership between community and club,” she said. “What good does it do to preserve a historical building if you can’t share it? We think it will be a draw.”
The club considered proposals from the Cushman School and Vagabond Hotel developer Avra Jain. Some members thought the choice of Heafey was a mistake. Joseph said the 45-member club, infused with rent payments from Heafey, is now “thriving” and seeking new blood.
The original Married Ladies Afternoon Club was organized in 1900 with help from Henry Flagler. Members started the city’s library system and were advocates for public schools and parks. The club’s prestige and coffers began to wane in the 1970s and it leased its headquarters to arts schools, which left considerable damage in their wake.
In 2008 the Omni Community Redevelopment Agency gave the club $3.8 million, only enough to replace windows and paint the exterior of the vacant building. Commissioner Marc Sarnoff criticized the grant, calling the club’s books “a mess.”
In 2015 opposition members called for the ouster of the board, but the deal with Heafey gave the club a path forward.
Joseph envisions a return to former grandeur.
“When you walked in it took your breath away,” she said. Currently the interior is a wreck, the giant fireplaces and piles of old chairs rotting away.
Michelle Breitenbach looks down on the club from her 36th floor balcony in the Opera tower. Like Hodgkins, she’s an advocate for the neighborhood.
“I picked this condo because of the green of the trees and the blue of the bay,” she said, pointing out an abundance of parking, including inside the Omni garage. “It would be a shame to take down those gorgeous trees.”
Nor is she confident the new restaurants will be successful. But the Miami Women’s Club had to find a way to preserve its home. At least another piece of Miami’s past was saved from the wrecking ball.
“Nobody is dressed up to go to an expensive restaurant around here. We’re in our dog-walking or exercise clothes,” Breitenbach said. “Maybe it will work out well. Seems like a risky choice. Why change history?”