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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Happy Birthday Coconut Grove!!! Now Honour Your Past

Peacock Inn circa 188?.
Courtesy State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
Dateline January 6, 1874 - Dr. Horace P. Porter establishes the first post office in Cocoanut Grove. In the 138 years since, Coconut Grove dropped the "a" and became one of the most exclusive areas in the country, as it continues to bury its past in a way that can only be viewed as racist.

One of the first tourist attractions in south Florida was the Bay View House, built in 1883 by Charles and Isabella Peacock. It was later renamed the Peacock Inn (and is now the site of Peacock Park). Ralph Middleton Monroe also began building The Barnacle (now Barnacle Historic State Park) around the same time and Camp Biscayne a little later. While Cocoanut Grove (it didn't lose the "a" until it was annexed by Miami in 1925) was still a virtually swamp infested wilderness, all of this development required staffing. Consequently, a parallel service industry grew around this progress and, as has always been the case in 'Merka, these people tended to be Black.

"Black citizens of Coconut Grove"
The entire Black community of Coconut Grove gathered
together in front of Commodore Ralph M. Munroe's
boathouse. Photo taken 189? 
Courtesy State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory
A Black population requires a Black enclave, of course; a place where White people don't want to live, mostly because any Black person is welcomed. What is now known as West Grove became the area where Blacks, mostly from the Bahamas, congregated. One of the first was Mariah Brown, a Bahamian who lived in Key West. She had been hired by The Peacocks and, as "Mary the Washerwoman," originally lived at the Inn. However, after she married Charles Brown they purchased a lot from Joseph Frow (who sold the Peacocks their plot of land as well), and built a house on Evangelist Street (now Charles Avenue) around 1892.

Joseph Frow was the first person to buy property off Biscayne Bay, in what later became Cocoanut Grove. His father Simeon had been appointed Cape Florida Lighthouse keeper in 1859. His brother John became lighthouse keeper in 1868. The lighthouse is on the southern tip of Key Biscayne and is the oldest standing structure in Miami-Dade county, even though it had to be rebuilt in the 1840s. Well familiar with the area, Joseph Frow bought up a very large chunk of land which he parceled off over the years.

1774 Map of Biscayne Bay, with Key Biscayne almost dead center.
Note: Where Coconut Grove would be located 100 years later
is labeled Grand Marsh. It was one. Map courtesy of Janthina Images,
which sells beautiful photo cards of the Cape Florida Lighthouse.
One of the men who worked in Cocoanut Grove was Ebenezer Woodbury Frankin Stirrup, another Bahamian who came up through Key West. Being a carpenter by trade, Stirrup's skills were probably in high demand. It's likely that he worked for a variety of employers, Joseph Frow undoubtedly among them. Stirrup cleared land for Frow and it was backbreaking work. The area was little more than swamp land with occasional dry hummocks. Frow repaid Stirrup with land; for every plot of land Stirrup cleared, Frow deeded him a plot of land. Eventually E.W.F. Stirrup became one of the largest landowners in Coconut Grove and, eventually, one of Florida's first Black millionaires.

From Black Miami . . . a brief look back
E.W.F. Stirrup was a man well ahead of his time. He believed that home ownership was important to growing Black families. To that end he used his land on which to build more than 100 houses on the streets surrounding Evangelist Street, which he sold or rented to the families that had emigrated to serve the growing tourist trade. This is also what made Coconut Grove unique. It had a higher Black home ownership than any other Black enclave in 'Merka.

Over the years the neighbourhood has remained predominately Black, as families passed the homes down from one generation to the next, the way some families pass down precious jewels. This is also what kept the neighbourhood intact, as one urban renewal plan after another faltered when the City of Miami and developers couldn't convince the homeowners to sell their most prized possession for peanuts.

Stirrup built his own home, of course, in late 1890s. The E.W.F. Stirrup House is the showplace he built for himself near the corner of Charles Avenue and Main Highway. Unlike most of the other houses in the West Grove, the Stirrup House is 2 stories. While it's based on the simple Conch Style that informs the Mariah Brown House, it has been elaborated upon and added to over the years. At one time the house looked out over Stirrup's substantial holdings. According to a report prepared by the City of Miami [PDF] to consider an historical designation for the E.W.F. Stirrup House:
The contributions of the African-American community to the City of Miami actually predate the City’s incorporation in 1896. As early as 1880, Black Bahamians arrived in Coconut Grove and began a community that still thrives today. Ebenezer Woodbury Franklin Stirrup migrated from the Bahamas to South Florida in 1888 and worked as a carpenter’s apprentice in Key West, and then as a laborer in a pineapple field in South Dade. He ultimately became a millionaire Coconut Grove property owner. Stirrup built his home in Coconut Grove, using all his construction skills to create an impressive, yet understated, residence for his family. Mr. Stirrup lived in the house until his death in 1957, a total of 58 years.

Mr. Stirrup is remembered today as an extraordinary example of entrepreneurship, a man who made the transition from immigrant to enormously successful Coconut Grove landholder, and who built more than 100 houses for African-Americans. His is an amazing legacy, as his success is all the more incredible when it is remembered that his accomplishments took place in an overwhelmingly segregated and discriminatory environment. When Ebenezer Woodberry Franklin Stirrup died in 1957 at the age of 84, he was not only one of the largest landholders in Coconut Grove, but also had done much to improve the housing conditions of the African-American community.
Panorama by author of E.W.F. Stirrup House with the Charles Avenue Historical Marker in foreground

Meanwhile, the E.W.F Stirrup House -- the last remaining symbol of an important man who once shaped what is now one of the most exclusive areas in the country -- is allowed to undergo Demolition By Neglect by a rapacious developer who hopes to develop the property.

There can be no doubt that if Mr. Stirrup were White, his home would have been a shrine by now. The Barnacle, Commodore Monroe's old homestead just a block away from Stirrup's, is now a state park and the house restored to its earlier splendour. Commodore Plaza, which begins two blocks north of the Stirrup House, is named after him. However, try and find something named after E.W.F. Stirrup, aside from E.W.F. Stirrup Elementary School, which is 10 miles from the community in which he made his fortune. Not even the historical marker across the street from his property, which honours the original Black Bahamian immigrants, mentions E.W.F. Stirrup by name.

Likewise the Mariah Brown House. If Brown were White, and owned the first house in an important historical district, her house would not sit empty and boarded up today. Even worse, the Mariah Brown was slated to have been renovated as a museum and community/historical resource. That project started in 1995 and has been stalled since 2000!!! However, unlike the Stirrup House, the current Mariah Brown house is not even the original structure. According to GrandAveNews:
The original house, 3298 Charles Ave., was built in 1889. The Coconut Grove Cemetery Association bought the home, which was in severe disrepair. The group razed it in 1999 and built a replica in 2000.
However, the E.W.F. Stirrup House is the real deal. While there appears to have been been several additions over the years, it's still the original house, much of it built by Ebenezer's own hands. As it continues to undergo Demolition by Neglect, the E.W.F. Stirrup House is also a symbol of something else in Coconut Grove: the quiet racism that has kept West Grove impoverished right from the beginning. Despite the The Grove's reputation for more than a century as a laid-back, funky, village which attracted painters, Bohemians and later Hippies, Black Coconut Grove has been allowed to slowly slide into disrepair as White Coconut Grove has become one of the ritziest in the country. The 33133 Zip Code is now considered one of the most exclusive in the country. Within a mile's radius of the Stirrup House today one can find homes, condos, and townhouses priced from a million dollars all the way up to $22 million, or so.

Developer Gino Falsetto controls the Stirrup property through a 50-year lease. However, due to provisions in Ebenezer Stirrup's will the Stirrup House must remain in the hands of the Stirrup Family. Ever since he wrested away control from E.W.F. Stirrup's descendants several years ago, Falsetto appears to have conducted a deliberate campaign of Demolition By Neglect. It has been empty for many years now and he has not even done the barest minimum to ensure the house doesn't fall apart. The house is entirely exposed to the elements with glass not in several of the window frames facing the ocean, where the prevailing winds come from. Vines have been allowed to grow up the walls and across the roof, with roots no doubt causing damage to those areas of the house. There is exposed wood rot all around the outside of the house, mold and mildew being one of the greatest concerns for any wooden structure in south Florida, which is why wood is no longer used as a building material here. The mold continues inside the house as well, living along side the termites that are eating the structure away from the inside. The property has been cited several times by City of Miami inspectors because of a lack of upkeep, in contravention of several Miami by-laws. Between citations by the City of Miami, the E.W.F. Stirrup property is allowed to become a trash heap, until it's cited all over again.

Eventually City of Miami building inspectors will come along and condemn the structure, saying it's too far gone to save. No doubt this is what Aries Development, the company that holds the Stirrup lease, wants. The E.W.F Stirrup House stands in the way of Aries making mega-millions of moolah.

From the large white structure on the bottom (Grove Gardens Residence
Condominiums) to the larger white structure at the top (Commodore Plaza)
is a massive area that could be developed for mixed-use by Aries if only
that pesky E.W.F. Stirrup House didn't stand in its way. Click to enlarge.
Follow the bouncing ball: Aries developed the Grove Gardens Residence Condominiums, the white building immediately south of the E.W.F. Stirrup House (yellow rectangle in map on the right). Right across Charles Avenue are two vacant lots (the orange rectangle) that also appear to be controlled by Gino Falsetto and/or Aries Development and/or a shell company. Aries had owned these lots previously, but defaulted and the bank took them back in foreclosure. However, who should win the auction, but Gino Falsetto's long-time partner-in-(alleged)-crime Pierre Heafy. It hardly appears to be a hands-off sale. Lastly, Immediately to the east of those vacant lots is the Coconut Grove Playhouse, which the state of Florida just recently took back from the bankrupt board that ran it into the ground 7 years ago. Through a loan that Aries claims it made to the board several years ago in an attempt to keep it solvent, Aries has always claimed a legal control of The Playhouse as well. Until recently that has stalled any progress on the Playhouse being renovated. Aries doesn't appear to have dropped its claim, so it might have to be tested in a court of law no matter what happens to the Playhouse down the road. The state of Florida has put the property up for sale as surplus.

As tangled as all of that sounds, here's the simple takeaway: The E.W.F. Stirrup House is the only remaining impediment to Aries Development (Gino Falsetto) having one of the last sizable properties that could be zoned for mixed-use in Coconut Grove. No doubt that's the reason Gino Falsetto has done nothing to protect the E.W.F. Stirrup House. It stands in the way of progress and a huge profit.

It's time for Coconut Grove to honour its entire history -- the Black as well as the White that's already been memorialized -- and say no to a developer who is trying to destroy an important part of Coconut Grove history.

SAVE THE E.W.F STIRRUP HOUSE!!!



Read my entire "Unpacking Coconut Grove" series by clicking the link below:

Unpacking Coconut Grove ► A Compendium