Tuesday, May 5, 2009

May 5: St. Stephens - The New Yorker and the Senator, All Over Again

By Sylvia Gurinsky

Preservationists across South Florida still get shudders recalling the demolition, during the 1980s, of the New Yorker and Senator hotels in Miami Beach. The two Art Deco hotels were part of the clarion call for the preservation of that city's history.

The demolished 1912 chapel of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church should be Miami's clarion call.

Holes in city preservation law and blunders by church leaders - the final blunder being their ignorance of calls for a week's delay of demolition while preservationists tried to make their case -came to this.

Sunday's Miami Herald article by Andres Viglucci and Tania Valdemoro said Miami doesn't require a preservation officer or board to approve demolition contracts - unlike, for instance, Coral Gables. That was one reason this structure slipped through the cracks.

But this time, the city, which has actually been improving on historic preservation recently (witness attempts to preserve the Miami Modern hotels and the Bacardi complex along Biscayne Boulevard), made the smaller mistake. The church definitely gets the bulk of the blame.

The biggest blame is that administrators of the church, which is right next door to the historic Barnacle, seem to lack knowledge of preserved history in the Grove and an idea that the old building, if restored, could have served as a landmark site for them.

They could have taken a cue from the Barnacle, the home pioneer Ralph Munroe built in 1891, which is now a state park. They could also have taken a hint from Plymouth Congregational Church, just a few blocks away. That church's campus includes a one-room schoolhouse built in 1889 and moved to the church's campus in 1969.

The church may learn its lessons in answering to outraged members, Grove residents and history lovers. As for the city, its lesson should come with a change in the law: Make every project in the city come before a historic preservation officer or board. Yes, every project. As Miami gets older, more of its history is worth preserving. The city has let too much of it get away.

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