Conservationist prayers to preserve the religious-themed gardens at Coral Gables went unanswered, paving the way for the gardens, the adjacent church, and the school to be demolished and replaced with 10-story luxury apartments.
The Coral Gables Historic Preservation Commission on Wednesday rejected the historic garden at 110 Phonetia Avenue by a 6-2 vote. The garden’s history dates back to 1951 when he was commissioned by the Evangelical Lutheran Church of St James. It’s the product of architect Robert F. Smith, the same mastermind behind several structures at the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens, and the Doc Thomas House, an old Florida relic and home of the Indiana Transplant. and South Miami pioneer pharmacist Arden Hayes “Doc” Thomas, who ran a drugstore in Gables in the 1920s.
According to the garden’s history, many of its trees and shrubs were grown from seeds brought back from the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem by Hazel Westby in the early 1950s. At the time, Westby was a professor at the University of Miami, Coral, where he lived in Gables. Westby is said to have taken a leave of absence from college to teach at the American University of Beirut. Today, many trees in the garden date her more than 2,000 years from the time Jesus was crucified, thanks to the seeds she brought home with her.
The church was considered for historic designation in July 2021, but did not meet the necessary criteria in the view of the City Preservation Commission. Then Century Homebuilders stepped in and in November 2021 he purchased the property from the church for $9.8 million. The developer submitted a comprehensive planning map and site plan in January 2022.
“When you make a designation, you have to designate everything within the property,” said Preservation Commission member Michael Maxwell, noting that the building does not meet the criteria for historic designation.
Century, a Coral Gables developer, told city officials early last year to redevelop the 1.5-acre site, which includes gardens, the now-closed St. James Church, and Crystal Academy, a behavioral therapy school for children with autism. said he wanted to Build 200 apartments there. This site is located a short distance from Coral Gables Women’s Club.
The developer has apparently promised Crystal Academy a space on the premises, according to the company’s website and comments made by school officials at a Historic Review Board meeting on Wednesday.
A planned residential development on Fenetier Avenue will align the property with the original vision of Coral Gables founder George Merrick. This is one of the factors that persuaded some Historic Preservation Commission members to vote against preserving the site of the garden, church and school. The city’s original plans included how Merrick would make that block of Fenetia a home rather than a park.
A reporter for the Miami Herald was unable to reach out to Century Homebuilders representatives on Thursday to provide a schedule for the apartment’s construction and completion.
Coral Gables resident Bonnie Bolton, daughter of the late feminist and civil rights activist Roxie Bolton, filed with the board in December to preserve the garden, or 20 percent of the property. She argued that the garden deserved preservation for several reasons, including that it was designed by Smith. and wanted to have a developer build around that portion of the property.
“Our Garden of the Lord exceeds the city’s criteria for historic designation, culture and history. We applied under nine different criteria, even though we only wanted one,” Bolton said Wednesday. He spoke to board members.
Several board members urged developers and conservationists to continue the conversation and see if statues and plaques commemorating veterans could be saved from the garden.