Opinion: Historic Preservation Board of Coral Gables Takes Another Wrong Turn

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.

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15 thoughts on “Opinion: Historic Preservation Board of Coral Gables Takes Another Wrong Turn

  1. Another travesty lobbied by money to influence a board that has lost their way.
    Its why we have elections. Great, the city gets more taxes as the infrastructureture of the city suffers. Now that one side has won something from us, what if? Perhaps we can win something back and owner & his consortium of investors & attorneys
    meet us in the middle? Incorporate the facade into 2 premier town homes uniquely having a common entry hall off the street. A buyer might even opt to combine two town homes. This is not a unique concept and an easy challenge for a good architecture design team to do. See article: http://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/beautiful-examples-historic-modern-architecture-come-together
    Put your foot down neighbors, developer do not care about our town, lets enlighten them.

  2. The City should consider who is in this board. Maybe its time for a change before its too late, before they change the name to a “Modern City”. There is no concept of heritage in that board and its embarrassing. People who deny the past become a danger to our future.

  3. Pompano Beach has a similar situation at the moment. The McNab house is historic on Atlantic Avenue. The family has sold the land where the house is located. The new owners want to build condos, of course. Pompano Beach is working with consultants and city employees to designate a small barely used park into a new redesigned landscape plan with the house. Planning is in the works to relocate the historic house to the nearby park area. The house and park will have recreation space, meeting space, and a small bistro. Of course having grown up in the Gables area, I prefer not to change the historic landmarks. However, preservation may be achieved in a number of ways besides demolition.

  4. Roberta, this building is as good as gone. Hopefully the owner hires the architects who designed Almeria Row to replace it. It would be the honorable thing to do.

  5. This decision has been appealed. Signatures are being collected from resident[s] living within a 1000 feet of the property [333 Catalonia].

    IF YOU LIVE IN THE AREA OR KNOW PEOPLE IN THAT AREA, THAT WOULD LIKE TO SIGN PETITION,
    PLEASE CONTACT info@historiccoralgables.org
    IF YOU WOULD LIKE TO HELP GATHER SIGNATURES THAT WOULD ALSO HELP.

  6. Definitely the wrong decision. The, only recently, owner of that building, has almost successfully procured all the properties on the North side of that block. He of course has no respect for the historical buildings of, “The City Beautiful”. His goal is to profit by selling the land for, of course, more condos. If the people that are aware of historical significance, don’t do their due diligence to preserve, then what is the purpose of a Historical Preservation Committee? The structure, in question, evidently met all the criteria. To allow this building to be razed, as the owner stated, “it’s a hindrance to progress”. Who’s progress? I think, only the gentleman that owns 75% of the block and his envisioned plans for his bank account. No concern for the historical architecture. There are not even enough qualified artisans left to construct buildings of that period. There are a number of non-artisans qualified to operate a wrecking ball. Are we going to base historical significance solely on the plans for monetary gain of one individual or the benefit of all that appreciate Coral Gables for its’ history. 333 Catalonia Avenue, is the one piece of history on that block that should remain. My take.

  7. I’m wondering if the Board members have read “George Merrick: Son of the South Wind” by Arva Moore Parks or any of the plethora of books on the history of our City Beautiful. Perhaps it is time for them to revisit the descriptions of the vision and mission of the City’s founders: they might just find understanding and inspiration in those words. I agree wholeheartedly with the comments above and am appalled that the Board disregarded the iron-clad case for preserving this last piece of Mission Revival architecture.

  8. Having watched the meeting unfold, it was obvious a few phone calls had been made beforehand. Similar verbiage from the board members makes one wonder. But I digress. The staff’s report was comprehensive and clearly demonstrated it met one of the criteria needed to designate it a historic building. The attorney’s tone was condescending, but that was to be expected. Then they rolled out Chisholm, who I wonder how he slept that night, after delivering an flippant slide show of cars from the 1970’s and a self boasting resume of work he did 40 years ago. Next came neighbors who complained about college students occupying the building and it’s general neglect. This was not the forum to address a noise ordinance, or to say you don’t like the type of people who live on your block. Students are people too, and this area was meant to be a higher density area as shown in the Future Land Use map, which was quickly brushed aside. Followed by the owner, who mentioned he is buying up properties on that street, which is suspicious. Finally, the owner’s assistant who said they show people the units to rent but the building is in such bad shape that no one is interested. That falls on the current owner who sounds more like a slumlord who does not take care of his property and has made no effort to elevate the building which he has. The enthusiasm of the board members to ignore their job responsibilities, which is to determine if the building meets one criteria and designate historic, is disheartening. The only rational board member is the one who said people of all types and stages in life should have the opportunity to live in Coral Gables. But don’t take my word for it. See it online yourself. http://coralgables.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=4&clip_id=1386

  9. This is ridiculous! When did our City Beautiful forget that Merrick’s vision is what made us what we are? I am sure that this property is more valuable to the owners, as did the LaSalle building, demolished than preserved! Shame on the board members who do not see, or ignore the importance of preserving our history. Let’s hope our elected officials have what it takes to overrule their decision. Please keep us informed so we can have a presence at the Commission meeting when it gets to the agenda.

  10. The City might want to consider an eminent domain proceeding in order to save the art and history of this property, before it is lost forever.

  11. Brett, once again, you have enlightened us all about the jewels we currently live with in Coral Gables. It is unfortunate that there is not a more widespread & effective way to communicate preservation efforts before the wrecking ball appears. If this is not a done deal, and provided there are no issues that deem this building a total loss in its current state, the City Commission should reconsider the fate of this building. Progress does not equate to perfection.

  12. Not an easy call to make by the City vs current owners demolition request of Block 27 Lot#33 part of an 14 lot assemblage started in 1996. If city truly wants to preserve this mission style apt bldg then simply they would have pass a resolution to purchase but current owner probably would have declined IMO but in fairness to the building it can be lifted off its foundation, moved/re located to other part of city thus preserving it. This bldg sits almost smack in the middle of the block. The proposed row townhomes create a new & large property tax base for the city when completed. These are all my personal view that anyone reading can simply agree or disagree with.

  13. Hello, just a short comment on this matter, I believe that by preserving the past we are helping the future, having a remainder of the great advances in architecture and development an a dream of a man with a vision. No to the demolition of historic sites, you have my undivided support, definitely.

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