Miami Beach

Residents fought to save log cabin. Now it’s being dismantled, its future unclear.

Miami Beach activists were incensed when workers started dismantling a 1930s log cabin in North Beach on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. The city has previously approved dismantling the structure and putting the pieces in storage so it can be reassembled later.
Miami Beach activists were incensed when workers started dismantling a 1930s log cabin in North Beach on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. The city has previously approved dismantling the structure and putting the pieces in storage so it can be reassembled later. Provided to the Herald

Workers are dismantling a log cabin built in the 1930s in Miami Beach. The work was expected — it was approved by city commissioners in October — but it sent activists into a fury Wednesday because the dismantling began before the city put together a plan for rebuilding it.

The cabin, built in 1934 by Miami architect Emil Ehmann for his family in North Beach, spent decades as home to a well-regarded community plant nursery. Since 1975, daily programs for adults with mental disabilities had been held there. But in 2011, the city closed the nursery because of budget cuts.

Activists consider the cabin, owned by the city on a public lot at Collins Avenue and 81st Street, a significant historic structure. It is not designated historic by the city and has no special protections against demolition.

“The cabin has stood at this location for 83 years as a testament to the upper North Shore’s historical beginnings during the Great Depression — and as a valued community asset,” Kirk Paskal, a North Beach activist, said in a Facebook post Wednesday.

The cabin became a flashpoint for city activists earlier this year when city officials and outside consultants determined the structure is in serious disrepair and needs a thorough — and pricey — restoration to save it.

After approving a $15,000 budget to demolish the building, commissioners responded to pressure from the community and added a provision saying the cabin’s components would be stored at a temperature-controlled warehouse in Opa-locka until the building could be reassembled.

Activists and local preservationists pressed for the city to rebuild the cabin in its current location. City officials talked about rebuilding it in North Shore Open Space Park, but no decision was made.

On Wednesday, contractors hired by the city began taking the log cabin apart under the supervision of city staffers. Douglas Wood, a structural engineer who is respected in the historic preservation community and who assessed the cabin’s condition this year, was observing the work to ensure that salvageable pieces of the structure are handled properly.

Around 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, workers were seen walking around the site and on the roof. A heap of splintered wood and what appears to be interior furniture lay in front of the cabin.

The heap further infuriated preservationists and North Beach activists who do not believe the workers are carefully cataloging the pieces of the cabin as it is taken apart.

“While we knew the city had earmarked money to, under appropriate supervision, carefully dismantle, catalog, and store for future restoration, we had not been advised work would commence,” said Tanya Bhatt, a North Beach activist. “We have been communicating with our elected officials for weeks to find a mutually agreeable plan and at no time did anyone respond saying that work was about to commence, nor that time was of the essence.”

The pile of wood is debris and pieces of the cabin that are not salvageable, said Tonya Daniels, Beach spokeswoman. “The salvageable pieces have not yet been removed,” she said.

She added that the city was following the commission’s direction to dismantle the building carefully so it can be reassembled later.

“The log cabin is an important piece of the Miami Beach history, and we will do everything we can to ensure that it is used to its fullest potential moving forward,” she said. “It was commission direction that after many months of research and analysis we move forward with the deconstruction and preservation of the log cabin.”

The North Beach log cabin before the city began dismantling it on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017. Patrick Farrell Miami Herald file

Some activists are skeptical of the city’s intentions. There is a discussion item on the agenda for next week’s commission meeting, the first to be led by Mayor Dan Gelber, regarding the log cabin. One commented on Facebook that the new mayor and three new commissioners should have been allowed to discuss the project before the dismantling began.

“All projects that are to be executed by a new commission and mayor” should be reviewed before work commences, said Paula King, an activist.

Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez agreed in a comment on another thread about the cabin.

“The administration should have waited until the first meeting of the new commission,” she wrote.

Plans to revive the cabin were part of the conversation about opening a North Beach Yard on the site, a counterpart to the popular outdoor gathering space in Wynwood. Organizers of the Yard have agreed to hold seven cultural and community events each week at no charge. They will include urban farming classes, live local music, nonprofit events, cooking workshops and fitness classes, among other activities.

The cabin was originally part of the concept, but this summer, the building was found to be in such bad shape that commissioners did not see a way to incorporate the structure into North Beach Yard’s plans.

Amid the cabin controversy in July, commissioners approved a five-year lease to North Beach Yard, which calls for the city to determine what to do with the cabin before North Beach Yard moves in.

Preservationists hope to work with the city to find funding for what is estimated to be an expensive reassembly and restoration, whenever and wherever that happens. The city has submitted appropriations requests to the Florida Legislature.

“Both Senator Daphne Campbell and Representative David Richardson have filed appropriation bills for funding anticipated to be used for the project,” Daniels said.

Daniel Ciraldo, executive director of the Miami Design Preservation League, said that he was surprised the city decided to begin dismantling the cabin before it completed a plan to rebuild it somewhere else.

“We understood there would be time for the plan to be developed,” he said. “It is surprising. There’s a future for the log cabin, which the commission has expressed their commitment to. We just need to make sure there’s a plan ASAP, and that the community is involved in the plan.”

Joey Flechas: 305-376-3602, @joeflech