Founder & Editor
Coral Gables resident and daughter of the late activist Roxcy O’Neal Bolton, Bonnie Bolton, has been working with members of the community to preserve Coral Gables’ Historic Garden of our Lord.
Located on the property of the former St. James Evangelical Lutheran Church (110 Phoenetia Avenue), the Garden of our Lord traces its history back over 70 years, to 1951.
According to a Miami Herald article from the time of the garden’s opening, and referenced by a recent Herald opinion piece by Bea L. Hines, the garden “contain(s) trees, plants and shrubs of the Bible and other flowers and trees of religious significance.” In fact, in Bolton’s application, she included several newspaper clippings which referenced the origins of the seeds. One of them is a Miami Herald article from May 26, 1952, explaining that “seeds from the Garden of Gethsemane will be planted in a few months, They will be brought to this country by Miss. Hagel Wostby, a St. James member.”
The Garden of Gethsemane is located at the base of the Mount of Olives and is the place where Jesus Christ was arrested before his crucifixion.
The congregation of St. James began dwindling and it struggled to recover after the outbreak of COVID-19. In November of 2021, the Church, adjacent school (Crystal Academy) and Garden of our Lord were purchased by Century Home Builders for $9.75 million.
Century Home Builders, a developer, has since filed plans to develop new luxury condos, while incorporating a location for Crystal Academy within the building.
However, the plans call for complete demolition of the Historic Garden. Herein lies the controversy.
As the land is private property, the City has told Bolton and members of the community advocating on behalf of saving the Garden, that the City has no ability to save land.
Application For Historic Designation
However, a historic designation declaration by the City of Coral Gables would save the garden.
Bolton filed her 123-page petition for historic designation on July 28th, 2022. In it she receives cooperation and statements from several respected members of the community including former member of the Coral Gables Board of Architects, Carlos Marin.
In addition to arguments for saving the historic trees in the Garden, she also makes several other arguments for historic designation.
Over the course of the years, the Garden had become the final resting place for veterans and members of the community. However, record of the Garden being registered as a cemetery could not be located.
The City informed Gables Insider that the developer had exhumed the remains of those buried that it had confirmed that the families were happy receiving the returned remains.
Gables Insider conducted a public records request and was unable to find any communications where this was documented. The City did, however, receive an email from the developer’s attorney stating, “enclosed please find a letter from our legal counsel Wendy Russell Weiner confirming that we have removed the cremated remains from the property and have delivered (t)hem to the next of kin. We have also conducted an on-site inspection with a license(d) Funeral Director, Ari Oberstein, and confirmed that there are no further burial sites on site.” The email was received on August 19th, weeks after the City had told Gables Insider the process had taken place.
The Garden is bordered by a very ornate perimeter wall. Through her research, Bolton was able to find that the architect behind its design was Robert Fitch Smith.
According to Bolton’s application, “Smith, was the first Dean of the University of Miami’s Department of Architecture. Smith also designed various historic buildings like the historical significant ‘Java Head’, the Biscayne Plaza Shopping Center, Miami’s first suburban strip shopping center; the University Baptist Church of Coral Cables; Shenandoah and Westminster Presbyterian Churches; North Hialeah Methodist Church; The Museum and Garden House at the Fairchild Tropical Garden; Bay Oaks Home for the Aged; and the National Register-listed “Thomas Arden ‘Doc” House.’”
Smith’s perimeter wall also features several plaques honoring among others, veterans.
According to the City, an arrangement has been made to take these plaques from their historic location to the War Memorial Youth Center’s memorial feature. Although, no plan could be located in the City records.
Historic Designation Applications come with a process. This one, due to its numerous arguments for designation will take more time to process.
In an email to the media on September 12th, Coral Gables Director of Communication Martha Pantin stated that, “A lengthy designation request has been filed by Ms. Bolton. As a result, the staff must review all issues presented.” She continued, “The review is currently underway, because the request for designation was lengthy staff is conducting a thorough review of all issues presented.”
Century Home Builders and their legal representatives are not happy, as this represents a potential significant delay to their plans.
On the day Bolton filed her complaint, City Historic Preservation Director Warren Adams emailed Century’s attorney Jorge Navarro, “we received a Historic Designation Application for the garden. I will send a copy to you when I can – it’s been submitted in plastic folders in a binder so I’ve asked Nancy to scan it. I’m at City Commission today but we should discuss once you’ve had an opportunity to review the application.”
Whether communication or discussion with Navarro and/or Century Home Builders is part of the process is unknown.
Navarro replied, “it’s unfortunate that someone would abuse of the Historical Designation process this way.”
Gables Insider reached out to Navarro for clarification on what he meant by abuse. He said he would reach out, but did not.
His client is seeking the City’s indulgence in changing zoning for the property in order to be able to build the project, as it is not permitted as of right.
What Comes Next?
The Garden of Our Lord will be discussed at the City Commission meeting on Tuesday, September 13th, where Century Home Builders is expected to make a presentation to the Commission.
As for Bolton’s application, Pantin explained that “if staff were to determine that the property should be historically designated it would require Board review. If staff were to determine the property is not eligible for designation, the applicant may present the proposal for designation to the Board.”