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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Unpacking Coconut Grove ► Part Two ► E.W.F. Stirrup House

Standing proud. The beautiful E.W.F. Stirrup House.
The E.W.F. Stirrup House (left) at 3242 Charles Avenue, Miami, FL, 33133, is reportedly one of the last wood frame homes in Miami-Dade County. It is almost certainly one of the oldest houses, built in the late 19th century, as Caribbean Blacks started arriving in lower Florida to work at the Peacock Inn. The house sticks out on Charles Avenue, but also in Florida. Homes don't look like this anywhere else. According to a report looking in to designating the E.W.F. Stirrup House a Miami historical site:
The key elements that reflect its nineteenth century origins are its extremely narrow proportions, the size and shape of the fenestration, and its L-shaped plan. This design is based on a builder’s tradition, and was especially popular throughout America in the last half of the nineteenth century.
There is more than one way to describe this property type. In their book A Field Guide to American Houses, Virginia and Lee McAlester describe it as a “front gable folk house.” In a more detailed article, Barbara Wyatt of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin described it as a “Gabled Ell.” Wyatt explains that this type was especially common in late–nineteenth century America, and was almost exclusively a residential type. The Gabled Ell takes the form of two gabled wings that are perpendicular to one another, and that are frequently of different heights.

The longitudinal face parallel to the street almost always had the lower height. The result was typically an L-shaped plan. Ms. Wyatt explains that the form allowed for outdoor living space (the porch) and a sheltered entrance. Entry is always via the porch at the “ell,” or junction of the two wings.
My latest panorama of the E.W.F. Stirrup House and the historical marker that started my journey.

The Stirrup House mailbox in 2010
While the E.W.F. Stirrup House certainly deserves to be preserved for its age and architecture, it also needs to be preserved as a standing monument to Ebenezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup, one of the people who built Coconut Grove with his bare hands.

E.W.F. Stirrup arrived in Coconut Grove in 1899 at the age of 25. Like a lot of Bahamians, he first migrated to Key West. There he apprenticed with an uncle as a carpenter, a trade he would utilize later. After 10 years, and unhappy with the financial arrangement with his uncle, Stirrup first moved to Cutler, Florida, working in pineapple fields and clearing lots for houses. Occasionally, instead of cash, Stirrup was paid in land, which began his real estate holdings that at one time included most of downtown Coconut Grove. That's what made him one of Florida's first Black millionaires. However, that's not what made him extraordinary, especially for his times.

As his landholdings increased Stirrup began building houses which he rented and sold to other Bahamians who had emigrated up through Key West to take the jobs offered by Coconut Grove's growing tourist industry. According to Kate Stirrup Dean, Stirrup's oldest daughter:

Father believed in every family having a house, a yard and a garden, so you would feel like you had a home. He felt that people became better citizens when they owned their own homes.

The Mariah Brown House with its marker and No Trespassing sign.
Stirrup apparently built more than 100 houses, often at night after a full day's work. Because of this Coconut Grove had a greater percent of Black home ownership than any other 'Merkin city I have studied. Most other cities had a higher percentage of rental properties and absentee landlords as a result of the neighbourhoods once belonging to other ethnic types who moved up and out, a natural progression. Coconut Grove was an area settled almost entirely by Blacks when there was nothing but swamp and wilderness surrounding it. They didn't inherit the neighbourhood, they built it and owned it themselves.

Stirrup was obviously a proud man because his house, which once dominated a large lot at the east end of Charles Avenue overlooking his estate, is a showpiece. It looks nothing like the simple Bahamian style homes he built for his neighbours. One of the last surviving examples of the Bahamian style is The Mariah Brown House, which pre-dates Stirrup's arrival by nine years. It is thought to be the first house owned by a Black person in the area. A report was also prepared to designate the Brown House a Miami historical property. The report declares the Brown House:

[O]ne of the most important remaining sites from this early black Bahamian settlement in Coconut Grove. The house is also a good example of the type of architecture of the nineteenth century frame vernacular architecture that was inspired by the houses of the Bahamas and Key West.

The importance of the contributions made by African Bahamians to the develoment [sic] of Coconut Grove and the City of Miami has long been overlooked. Although recent studies show that by 1920 West Indian blacks made up over 16 percent of Miami's population, information about their community and lifestyle has been basically undocumented.

Undocumented? Overlooked? Yes!!! Researching the Bahamian phase of Coconut Grove has been a monumental task. I have it through 2nd and 3rd hand information that in the '20s, or '30s, or '40s, and well into the '60s according to some, Coconut Grove was an artists' community. It attracted a certain type of Bohemian Beatnik hipster, the archetype of which had little problem mixing with Blacks, listening to Jazz, and smoking reefer. That's where my novel is going.

However that's not where my research keeps taking me. My research keeps taking me to the E.W.F. Stirrup House, the Mariah Brown House, and the Coconut Grove Playhouse [another boondoggle I have yet to write about, but which I believe is just one more piece in the giant corruption jigsaw puzzle I find myself investigating] . Yet, the more I find out, the less I know. A little over a year ago the local NBC affiliate and CBS affiliate both filed reports which filled in some more of the blanks of the Stirrup House:




What has happened since then? Aside from someone straightening the historical marker? Nothing. I have now been documenting Charles Avenue in photos and essays for three years. In that time there has been no change to the Mariah Brown House or the E.W.F Stirrup House. Aside from more weather damage they stand in the EXACT same state of disrepair as they were the day I discovered them. My research confirms that each of them were vacant for years before I stumbled across them.

The Coconut Grove Playhouse in 2009.
In April of this year a "Give It Back!!! Give It Back!!!" campaign fired up to save the Coconut Grove Playhouse. However, it appears to have sputtered out almost as quickly as it flared up. More importantly, it was only concentrated on the Playhouse. What's clearly needed is a comprehensive plan for a specially designated historical district from the Charlotte Jane Memorial Cemetery (named after Stirrup's wife and childhood sweetheart and once the only place Blacks could be buried in the area because it was owned by Mr. Stirrup) to the Coconut Grove Playhouse, which could be the jewel in the rich tapestry of historical preservation of a Black neighbourhood unique in this country.

If such a designation can be done for a DAMNED DESIGN DISTRICT, then Miami can certainly see to it that this stretch of Charles Avenue be saved, and preserved. What physically remains of Coconut Grove's rich history has been neglected and allowed to rot. I believe this has always been the original intent, ever since these three properties went vacant. Ask yourselves this question? In the middle of one of the most exclusive Zip Codes in the country, why has Miami allowed this to happen? Have you ever heard of Demolition by Neglect?

I believe the fix was in a long time ago. Therefore the question has always been, in my mind, who would benefit from from these properties being razed to the ground?

Coming soon: Unpacking Coconut Grove ► Part Three ► Who has a financial stake in the east end of Charles Avenue?

Previous entries:
Unpacking Coconut Grove ► Part One
Unpacking Coconut Grove ► Part 1.1