By: Randall Robinson, co-author of MiMo: Miami Modern Revealed and Miami Architecture: An AIA Guide Featuring author of MiMo: Miami Modern Revealed and Miami Architecture: An AIA Guide Featuring Downtown author of MiMo: Miami Modern Revealed and Miami Architecture: An AIA Guide Featuring Downtown
Like many people, I was lucky enough to call Arva Parks a teacher, a mentor and a friend. In an amazing turn of events, I was asked by Tropic Magazine in April to write an article in support of the effort to save 1208 Asturia Avenue. Not having been to the house and looking for inspiration, I called Arva the week before she passed away.
“Why should this house be saved?” I asked her, cutting to the chase. In no uncertain terms she replied, “Because it’s by Russell Pancoast and it’s practically intact.” I explained the question came because of the Tropic article I was writing on the house. In encouragement and inspiration, she exclaimed, “I can’t wait to read it!”
Those turned out to be her last words to me. Can you imagine those being the parting words of one of our greatest teachers?
Here is an updated version of the article I wrote for Tropic. I’ll never know if she got to read it, but her final words of encouragement have led me to join the effort to save this house with fervor.
RUSSELL PANCOAST, A HOMEGROWN master architect and one of Miami’s most formative architectural designers, worked on and produced scores of architecturally significant buildings from the 1920s through the 1950s. His work spanned several de- sign periods, leaving behind an inimitable legacy of exemplary Mediterranean Revival, Art Deco, transitional Med-Deco, Tropical Art Deco, Stream
line Moderne and a brand of Postwar Modernism unique to Subtropical Florida, referred to as the Coconut Grove School.
The grandson of Miami Beach pioneer John Collins, Russell Pancoast came to Miami’s Subtropical frontier from New Jersey as a young boy in the first years of the 20th century. He came with his family, led by Collins’ son-in-law Thomas Pancoast. Thomas Pancoast was the first to envision Miami Beach as the Palm Beach for the new money, self-made millionaires of the late 19th century Gilded Age. But first there were mangrove forests to reclaim and mosquitoes to tame. Though Southern Florida has had an exotic allure from the beginning, the white pioneer days of the 18th, 19th and early 20th century were rough going during the long hot season of the year.
Russell Pancoast earned his degree in architecture from Cornell in 1922 and worked in the Miami office of the illustrious Pittsburgh firm of Kiehnel & Elliott before starting his own practice in 1928. Pancoast possessed, however, something that could not be learned at a great university or by apprenticing at a high style architecture firm. Unlike like the rest of the small club of respected Miami architects of the first half of the 2oth century, he had a first-hand knowledge of the pioneering subtropical vernacular architecture of South Florida, that is to say, especially in Miami’s case, what came before the Mediterranean Revival style.
The northern white pioneers of subtropical Florida logically built according to the climate and the materials readily available locally. Thus, the defining characteristic of building construction was the use of the abundant and tough Dade County Pine as the primary building material. Oolitic Limestone, commonly referred to as ‘coral rock’ was used as decorative cladding material over the pine. A defining design characteristic of the early buildings were shallow pitched roofs because only water, not snow, needed to be shed from them. The roofs had wide eaves to provide protection from the searing summer sun and frequent summer rains. As air conditioning would not come into widespread use until the 1950s, any simple shade device such as wide eaves was naturally embraced.
So critical were the wide eaves that they wrapped around all four sides of a building, running across even the gable ends.
The use of these shade devices was not lost on Pancoast, who, by virtue of being a pioneer, was the only one who had an intimate knowledge of the construction of the very first buildings in Miami.
Credit for the refinement of this contradiction reached its pinnacle in the sculptural roof of the Coral Gables house, where gables and contradicting eaves were intentionally assembled into an elegant coherent whole.
So I find that what makes the house truly unique is not that it represents a transition from the Revival Styles popular in the early 1920s to the Modern styles that started with Art Deco in 1925. Rather, the important transition it represents is the movement from pioneer houses with low-pitched, hipped roofs and wide eaves to the multitude of suburban, one-story houses with low-pitched, hipped roofs throughout Subtropical Florida The most overt signal of this particular transition is described in the property’s historic designation report:
The eastern ‘private’ end of the home has two bays. The front façade of the eastern-most bay is along the same plane as the front entry public bay dis- cussed above. This small bay has a hipped roof with a central window flanked by shutters. The second bay projects approximately five feet and has a very shallow front-facing gable roof. The gable end is visually minimized by a ‘hip’ skirt roof that becomes the wide projecting eaves of this bay.
The “hip skirt” was unquestionably inspired by the eaves applied to the gables often seen in the coral rock houses of the 1910s sand early 1920s.
Therefore, to recap, 1208 Asturias must preserved because it is,
- as Arva stated to me, by Russell Pancoast and it’s practically intact,
- It is a local precursor of the American ranch style house that proliferated in the 1950s. As the designation report ex- plains, the house was not a prototypical ranch house but rather a strand that was woven into a unique form as it was intertwined with influences from other parts of the country.
- It is unique because it represents a transition from the Pioneer period of Miami to the modernism that became popular here as the area came out the Great Depression here in the mid 1930s.
At the Wolfsonian-FIU, we learn that originally utilitarian objects are often regarded, with the passage of time, as works of art.
I find this progression fascinating because it goes hand-in-hand with building and districts that go from valueless to cherished with the passage of time.
Here we see how the gabled eave went from a utilitarian object to inspiration for a high style decorative device between the hands of Althea Merrick at the Coral Gables House and around the corner in the hands of Russell Pancoast at 1208 Asturia.
Remember, the Tropical Art Deco of the 1930s that was considered cheap and tacky and unexceptional in the 1970s became a cherished savior of Miami’s tarnished image in the rocky early 1980s.
It could have just as easily been erased, and that, we can all agree, would have been a tragedy.