By Brett Gillis, Vice President, Historic Preservation Association of Coral Gables
The City of Coral Gables has reached yet another philosophical fork in the road, and concern on the part of residents and preservationists regarding historical matters in the Gables has reached new heights. Despite the recent outcry from the community over the loss of the LaSalle building earlier this year (which has left a “historic hole” instead of a historic building on Le Jeune Road by City Hall), it seems that lessons taught are not always lessons learned. This is in the aftermath of the August 15, 2019 Historic Preservation Board decision to deny historic designation of the Mission Revival style apartment building at 333 Catalonia Avenue in the Crafts Section of Coral Gables.
City staff presented a well-researched and elegant 24 page report that explained in detail the three criteria for designation that the property meets and why it should be designated as historic per the Coral Gables Zoning Code. 333 Catalonia Avenue exemplifies the historical, cultural, political, economic, or social trends of the community, portrays the environment in an era of history characterized by one or more distinctive architectural styles, and embodies those distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style, or period, or method of construction. It should be noted that only one criterion is required for designation.
Nonetheless, after citing irrelevant zoning issues and lack of architectural splendor in their estimation, Board Members Raul Rodriguez, Alicia Bache-Wiig, Xavier Durana, John Fullerton, and Janice Thomson voted to deny historic designation of this building, thus permitting the owner to apply to demolish it–and the last vestige of founder George Merrick’s vision for affordable housing in the Crafts Section of Coral Gables near Ponce Circle Park along with it. This vote was against the recommendation of the Coral Gables historic preservation officer and staff to preserve the building for future generations. Vice Chairman Albert Menendez, Board Member Cesar Garcia-Pons, and Chairman Bruce Ehrenhaft voted against this motion that would allow the building to be demolished, but the motion still passed 5 to 3.
Unlike the LaSalle building, 333 Catalonia retains a high degree of architectural integrity, having undergone only minimal permitted alterations in its nearly 100-year history. No additions or removals of dominant character-defining features have occurred, and the building’s recertification report from 2016 stated that the building was in good condition. The fact that the building is still extant proves that it has stood the test of time in a city that has evolved so dramatically around it. The “degree” or “quality” of different examples and interpretations of an architectural style, such as the Mission Revival style, is a matter of opinion. One Mission building may appeal to one person more than another Mission building does and vice versa – this is just life. To preserve different architectural typologies is to open our minds to different ways of thinking and living–and to the wonderful world of architecture and design in general. Just as one may favor Cubism over Fauvism or Impressionism over Abstraction in art, one may favor Mediterranean over Mission or Art Deco over Ranch in architecture. But does one style deserve to be banished because it is “less liked,” or “less popular” than another? Can’t we learn something from them all? Fashion changes. Art changes. Architecture changes. But everything seems to come back. And diversity is the spice of life.
As a Certified Local Government, the City of Coral Gables and its Historic Preservation Board are tasked with preserving the entire history of Coral Gables–not just 1920s Mediterranean architecture built by famous architects. How many residents enjoy a daily stroll along the Greenways? The buildings that line North and South Greenway represent a comprehensive tour of Coral Gables architecture–from the early coral rock cottages, to Mediterranean mansions of the 1920s, to Depression Moderne abodes of the 1930s, and even to the modest ranches from the 1940s and 50s. Each architectural style is distinct in its artistry and its ability to tell a different chapter in the history of Coral Gables. Furthermore, the city code does not contemplate which architectural style to designate–any building that “embodies those distinguishing characteristics of an architectural style, or period, or method of construction” may be designated.
Named after the old mission churches that the Spanish missionaries built when they were sent to California, the Mission Revival style was the first Spanish style to attract widespread national attention. It was popularized at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago that celebrated the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in America. As such, the Mission Revival style is one of the few styles that spread from west to east in this country. In a 1925 interview with the New York Times, Coral Gables founder George Merrick commented: “just how I came to utilize the Spanish type of architecture in Coral Gables, I can hardly say, except that it always seemed to me to be the only way houses should be built in tropical surroundings.” It is clear that the initial primary architectural motif he selected for Coral Gables was the Spanish, and, even to this day, “Old Spanish” is a common term used to describe early buildings in Coral Gables. Mission Revival architecture is actually much rarer in Coral Gables than the so-called Mediterranean style, the latter being formed as architects began to blend the Spanish Mission with Moorish and Italian architecture to create an amalgamated style that became known as Mediterranean. As such, preserving Mission Revival buildings is also important in telling the story of how the Mediterranean style evolved.
Built in 1926, 333 Catalonia Avenue is the only known Mission Revival style apartment building that remains in the entire City and the only known apartment building of any style that was built for artisans working in the Crafts Section. This is the only building that represents the vision Mr. Merrick had for affordable housing for the artisans that would work in the Crafts Section and sell their goods along Ponce.
During the hearing, the owner of the building in question described it as an “obstruction to progress,” which leaves us with the question: progress for whom? Speaking from the heart, one life-long Coral Gables resident that spoke at the hearing stated that “we need to decide what our city values are, what message we want to leave for our children, and what kind of community we want to be.” The goal of historic preservation is not only in preserving the physical beauty of a building–another aspect is preserving the soul, spirit, and values of a community. “The philosophy behind the Crafts Section and the concept of inclusive, affordable housing in the design of this city…is a notion that should be celebrated. Not everyone gets to drive a Mercedes, and that doesn’t mean that their history should be demolished.”
As stated in the Coral Gables Zoning Code, historic designation promotes the educational, cultural, and economic welfare of the public by preserving historic structures and sites as visible reminders of the history and cultural heritage of a city, region, state, or nation. To wash away this building is to destroy a piece of Coral Gables history that should never be forgotten–that “Coral Gables ideal” of joy of living for all that made our hometown so unique in the first place.