As buildings vanish, so does history

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The Miami Herald

June 4, 2006

By Paul George

217095985570MASTERMIND:Xavier Cortada in his studio, 104 SW Ninth St. in Miami, used readers’ photos and memories to create part of the expansive multimedia installation that will be in The Miami Herald’s lobby this month.

Looking at Xavier Cortada’s Absence of Place project reinforces my thoughts over the past few decades about how so much of what has made this place special over the years has disappeared. That this project was initiated by a former student of mine is no small point of pride: Xavier took my class in South Florida history at Miami Dade College a few years back, and in conversations since, he has said that class stimulated his interest in the region’s past. Xavier, once again, you get an ”A” in my book.

In his latest public effort to commemorate the region’s past, Xavier encourages readers to reclaim their memories of a city that’s changing so quickly, we forget what was in place even a few years back, let alone a few decades ago. Some now-disappeared places had highly personal meanings, as pictures submitted to The Miami Herald by readers show. And that, in turn, got me thinking about my own youth and how much of the structural environment has vanished. How so many of the buildings that I loved are gone. And how efforts could have — should have — been made to save them before they existed only in our memories.

My view is that historic buildings are like the African sages of yore — that is, they’re like the elderly villagers who passed the story of their people down through the generations. An old building’s style can reveal much about a time and place; for instance, its building materials, and whether it has such details as an open porch to cool off the house, tell us how its occupants lived. As we continue to lose our older buildings, we lose more of our collective historical memory, our sense of place, our awareness of the rich past of our community. And we lose a vital source of enrichment in our lives.


The Miami of my childhood, the city of the mid-1900s, was a wondrous place to me. My world was Riverside, a part of what is today East Little Havana. Stretching from the west bank of the Miami River to today’s Southwest/Northwest 17th Avenue (nee Osceola Avenue), Riverside was an early 20th century Miami ”suburb” in which many homes were graced with manicured lawns and gardens. I especially remember the wood-frame homes with their open porches and second-level dormers beckoning to the street below.

I got a close look at the area’s buildings, and the institutions and businesses in them, through frequent walks with my dad, who told me the stories about them.

Our apartment stood behind my grandmother’s Belvedere Bungalow on Southwest Fourth Street, just west of 12th Avenue. Nearby was a former supper club serving as the first home of the Jewish Home for the Aged (today’s Miami Jewish Home and Hospital for the Aged). Down the street was Riverside Elementary School, which had quaint courtyards.

The neighborhood’s most imposing landmark was the large Firestone store at West Flagler Street and Southwest 12th Avenue. There were stories that Thomas Edison, a close friend of owner Harvey Firestone’s, was on hand for its opening in the late 1920s. Now it’s a Walgreens drugstore.

Sometimes we ventured farther east to Southwest Fourth Street and Eighth Avenue near the Riverside Mercantile Building. This building, built by and for the Ku Klux Klan in 1926, became the home of Cuban exile live theater in the 1960s — Teatro Martí. (A new mixed-use project has been approved for this site.)

Diagonally across from it and a block down near the bottom of the ridge was Ada Merritt Junior High School, the county’s oldest junior high school, in a Spanish Colonial-style building. Four blocks north on West Flagler stood the Tivoli Theater where each Christmas, neighborhood kids received free presents from Santa Claus, or more likely, from a kindly management.

Nearly all these structures are gone. Today, more than 50 years later, the demolition of historic Riverside houses not only continues but has accelerated as a consequence of the greatest developmental boom in the area’s history.

As sad as it has been to witness the demise of Little Havana’s early buildings, other venerable Miami neighborhoods have suffered more.

Many of the city’s toniest early subdivisions framed wide, beautiful Biscayne Boulevard just north of downtown. But now, block after block of homes and other buildings north of the Omni shopping mall have been demolished.

To the northwest of downtown Miami is Highland Park, one of the first suburbs outside of the original city limits, and it has suffered a similar fate, having been swallowed by the expansive Jackson Memorial Hospital/University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine complex.

While the demise of Overtown is a familiar and sad story, it bears repeating that as recently as 1960, this vibrant segregated quarter hosted a population of 40,000. Forty years later, as block after block of Bahamian-style shotgun houses and other older styles of buildings fell to the wrecking ball, the community counted fewer than 10,000 residents.

THE LOSS The reasons behind the wholesale destruction of many historic neighborhoods are familiar and are part of a national phenomenon. The post-World War II flight to suburbia and the concomitant abandonment of a collective stewardship over these neighborhoods by longtime residents stands out. Urban renewal programs and the construction of expressway right-of ways and cloverleafs through the heart of communities represents an additional reason. Even as buildings disappear, however, South Florida, especially Miami-Dade County, has been slow in its attempts to save them. There are many reasons why, and one is that in the past few decades, preservation efforts haven’t been a priority for large numbers of new arrivals struggling to “make it.” Recent efforts to encourage redevelopment of Miami’s decaying center, known as ”urban infill,” or the movement back to the city, have met with success amid the current building boom — but that boom also hastened the demise of many old structures that were replaced by high-rise condos. Finally, the rising value of land makes it difficult for investors and developers to justify preserving the old when they can make more money by building anew, and vertically, on a site. This has been particularly true in downtown Miami — in my opinion, the most important section in Miami-Dade in terms of its history, architecture and archaeology. PRESERVATIONISTS Another major reason relatively few buildings in Greater Miami have been retained is that historic preservation efforts were embraced relatively late. In 1963, when the beleaguered downtown Florida East Coast Railway station, which opened in 1912, was demolished, the media paid scant attention to it, treating its fate not as a preservation issue, but as the inevitable end of an object that had outlived its usefulness. Later in the decade, however, the battle in the late 1960s to save the soaring Douglas Entrance to Coral Gables galvanized a historic preservation movement in the City Beautiful. By the 1980s, metropolitan Dade County had created a historic preservation ordinance, organized a countywide board to oversee preservation issues, and completed an ambitious survey of thousands of older structures throughout the sprawling county. The city of Miami soon followed with the creation of its own historic preservation board. These boards, and others representing Miami-Dade’s myriad municipalities, labor diligently and have succeeded in saving some noteworthy buildings and even neighborhoods. Consider the success of South Beach and the Art Deco district with its hundreds of Streamline Moderne structures built between 1936 and 1941, for instance, or the continuing allure of Coral Gables with its array of Mediterranean Revival-style structures from the mid-1920s. In much of Miami-Dade, however — and in South Florida — preservationists are often no match for well-heeled developers who can call on lobbyists, zoning attorneys and a battery of ”experts” to persuade lawmakers, and municipal and county boards, to allow an old one- or two-story structure to be knocked down and replaced by a multistory one. A PLEA So my plea is this: As South Florida continues its vertical climb, we should pause to consider the cost of this development not only in terms of quality of life issues, but also to our history, so much of which is embodied in historic buildings. For an example of how preservation could work, consider the large expanses of restored neighborhoods that have added character and beauty to such cities as Savannah, Ga.; Charleston, S.C.; or the Center City section of Philadelphia. Or, in Miami, cross the river from the Miami River Inn to the Lummus Park area on the northwest perimeter of downtown and walk along the south side of the 400 block of Northwest Fourth Street. You will see three wonderfully restored small homes, with their oolitic limestone chimneys and bay windows, and you will walk away elated by this rare preservation achievement. But you will also regret what could have been in many other places. Paul S. George, a history professor at Miami DadCollege, frequently leads historic walking tours around South Florida.