Miami Beach

Demolition begins on Bal Harbour’s Church by the Sea

The Church by the Sea adjacent to the Bal Harbour Shops is being demolished Friday, Dec. 11, 2015.
The Church by the Sea adjacent to the Bal Harbour Shops is being demolished Friday, Dec. 11, 2015. wmichot@miamiherald.com

After a months-long effort by activists to save the Village of Bal Harbour’s oldest standing building, the 70-year-old Church by the Sea started coming down Friday.

A demolition permit for the picturesque church, tucked between the Bal Harbour Shops and its parking lot, was issued earlier in the week to make way for an expansion of the luxury mall. Demolition is expected to take several weeks.

 

“It’s really just a shame,” said Brian Mulheren, 68, a Bal Harbour resident who over the years has attended funerals and other events at the church, 501 NE 96th St. “It’s crazy that they would go ahead at Christmas time — a religious time of year — and start demolishing a historic church. What a Christmas gift for the residents of Bal Harbour and the congregants. It’s ludicrous.”

The Congregational church, which has an agreement to sell its property to Bal Harbour Shops, owned by the Whitman family, has been embroiled in controversy over the past few months. Some parishioners and neighbors concerned about increased traffic had sought to save the 1940s building, the work of two prominent Miami architects.

“We don’t want the shops expanding,” said Mulheren, who has lived in the area for 15 years.

Lynne Bloch-Mullen, 89, who had sued in hopes of blocking demolition, said she isn’t giving up. Bloch-Mullen, a church member for the past 17 years, said she and others are talking with attorneys about a stipulation in the property’s deed that only a church can be built on the site.

“We have no home, we have no place to anticipate having a home,” she said. “On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we will be marching around the empty lot with signs. We may be going to jail.”

On Christmas eve and Christmas Day, we will be marching around the empty lot with signs. We may be going to jail.

Lynne Bloch-Mullen, Church by the Sea member

The congregation moved out of the church abruptly and filed for demolition permits just before the Miami-Dade historic preservation board was to consider whether to initiate a process to designate the building.

Under terms of the purchase agreement, Bal Harbour Shops must help the congregation find a new permanent home, but nothing firm has been publicly identified. In the meantime, the congregation has been meeting for services in ballrooms at luxury resorts like the St. Regis in Bal Harbour.

A sign outside the church as it was being demolished Friday said this Sunday's services will be held at the Bath Club in Miami Beach.

Today marks the end date of a physical structure, but it is also represents a new beginning for both the church and Bal Harbour Shops.

Attorney John Shubin, who represents both the Church by the Sea and Bal Harbour Shops

“Today marks the end date of a physical structure, but it is also represents a new beginning for both the church and Bal Harbour Shops. I am confident that the future will be bright for both,” said attorney John Shubin, who represents both the church and the shops. He said Bloch-Mullen’s argument about the deed “has no legal merit.”

Meanwhile, he said, the shops are moving forward with expansion plans, including the church site, and hope to have hearing dates set by the Village of Bal Harbour in the near future. It is estimated that the expansion, which has not yet been approved BY the village, will cost $300 million.

The demolition, however, upsets residents and preservationists who are concerned that history is slipping away in the beachside town.

“Big money, special interests win again in Miami-Dade County to the detriment of future generations,” said preservationist Mitch Novick, a Miami Beach hotelier and chairman of the Miami-Dade Historic Preservation Board.

Big money, special interests win again in Miami-Dade County to the detriment of future generations.

Mitch Novick, preservationist

Novick and other historic preservationists tried to have the building declared an historic landmark, but the county’s historic preservation board didn’t see it that way. The Congregational church’s board also did everything it could to avoid the designation, including suing the county and the Village of Bal Harbour, which it claimed was blocking issuance of demolition permits.

Last month, a majority of the Miami-Dade’s historic preservation board members reluctantly voted 6-3 not to pursue historic designation for the church, citing strict preservation criteria that apply to churches. County preservation chief Kathleen Kaufman said the Church by the Sea did not meet those criteria. The guidelines call for historic designation only if a church has unusual architectural merit. Kaufmann concluded that the church, initially designed by Russell Pancoast and later significantly expanded by renowned architect Alfred Browning Parker, was a hodgepodge that didn’t stand out.

“Today is a day of mixed emotions for all of us,” said the Rev. Robert W. Asinger. “The church building has served us for many years and has been our place of worship and many memories. However, it is also a tangible and exciting step forward to better serve our community while creating new memories and a new future with God as our guide.”

Miami Herald Staff Writer Andres Viglucci contributed to this report.

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