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Written by Margaret Griffis, BT Contributor   
December 2014

The neighborhood celebrates a Miami milestone

1Morningside_1984. That number usually elicits visions of Orwellian nightmares. But for Miamians, it recalls the beginning of a renaissance. Morningside residents had fought a years-long battle to prevent a particularly destructive trend from eating up their homes, as it had in many other older neighborhoods.

Their reward came on December 20, when the neighborhood received designation as Miami’s first historic district. This month residents are celebrating the 30th anniversary of that victory.

Thanks to that designation, Morningside remains a beautiful example of pre-war Miami. In the 1984 designation report, planners referred to it as the city’s “best remaining example of a boom-era suburb.” Washington, D.C., must have agreed because the National Park Service added Morningside to the National Register of Historic Places in 1992.

The district is bounded by NE 53rd Street, NE 60th Street, Biscayne Boulevard, and Biscayne Bay. Morningside Park cuts into the district’s southeast corner.

The developer was the Bay Shore Investment Company. Its president, James Hilliard Nunnally, was an Atlanta candy manufacturer whose treats were marketed as “The Candy of the South.” The candy was so popular that Nunnally could help finance a buyout of the Coca-Cola Company, as well as invest heavily in Florida real estate. About 1923 he moved to Miami and eventually settled in a Morningside home he built and where he passed away in 1938 (at the time, the district was called Bay Shore).

Morningside_2

Nunnally’s vision was to create a ready-made, upscale residential neighborhood. At a time when many Miami lots were being sold undeveloped, a 1924 sales brochure for Bay Shore proclaimed: “Thoughtfulness was the motto. Not one single feature of highly modernized improvements was to be left for future residents to provide. They were to get a finished homesite, with every utility -- water, light, gas, and sewerage -- provided in the most scientific manner....

“Every feature which might tend toward comfort, convenience, dignity, and beauty was incorporated in the plan of development, and no detail was left unattended when the property was finally pronounced ready for delivery.”

But you still had to build your dream home on the improved lot. To prevent any conflicts, there were numerous deed restrictions, including those that ensured no hotels or apartment buildings would crop up. Every builder had to submit plans for approval and the landscaping was also monitored. While that may seem restrictive by today’s standards, back then it lured a number of the area’s most prominent citizens and politicians, including Miami Mayors Frank Wharton and Perrine Palmer.

In 1936 the neighborhood expanded southward, below NE 55th Street. Although these buildings were modest in comparison, the same deed restrictions were enforced, creating a unified environment that worked, even though some homes were built as late as 1941.

The mix in architectural styles included the ever-popular Mediterranean Revival and Art Deco homes, but also masonry vernacular and even a Mission Style home. At least 40 architects, many still well-regarded in the industry, are represented in the district. About two-thirds of the current homes in the district are original.

It wasn’t until Biscayne Boulevard was widened after the war and cut off a western section of Bay Shore that the Morningside moniker came into existence.

Besides appealing to the gentry, the restrictions contributed to neighborhood’s care well into the 1980s. What the historic district designation roughly does is to extend the most important Bay Shore restrictions permanently. Major changes now need board approval, instead of company approval. Among other requirements, façades cannot be changed nor can the landscaping cover them. Skyscrapers still cannot line the shore.

Although the neighborhood easily fit the parameters of a historic district, the path to designation was arduous. Every conforming home needed extensive historic documentation, so the residents worked together to catalogue them.

Morningside_3Once compiled, the papers were brought before the city’s new Historic and Environmental Preservation Board. Fortunately, Morningside already had an ally working on the board. Nora Schaefer was then a real estate agent who lived in the neighborhood (and still does). She’d noticed the architectural wonders and pointed them out to her clients. It was great for business, but her main drive was preventing what had occurred downtown from happening to Morningside.

“Downtown,” she says, “without anybody knowing it, [the city] had rezoned the properties east of the Boulevard. They said they could turn into multifamily dwellings. Once they did that, they ruined it. They cut the houses up and made them into rooming houses. Rooming houses are not a safe place to go, and the houses were altered and destroyed.”

Indeed, neighborhoods like Edgewater deteriorated quickly and became so dangerous that the only solution was razing them and starting fresh.

Morningside had suffered from smaller attempts, as well. Several homes had been altered significantly and were in need of restoration in order to conform to the new designation. “It was like undressing a person in rags and tatters and seeing the beautiful lady that was underneath,” Schaefer recalls, adding that no matter where she goes, if she says “Morningside,” somebody knows the neighborhood.

Echoing Schaefer’s sentiment is Gail Meadows, another resident who joined the group demanding the designation. “The significance [of the designation] is that nobody in their right mind would have thought this could have occurred in 1984,” says Meadows, a former Miami Herald journalist.

“It wasn’t a topic of discussion,” she continues. “It wasn’t really on anybody’s mind -- and this was all across the nation -- but in Miami’s situation, as the Interstate system took hold and the shopping malls were built way, way out and suburbia kept spreading west, downtown became abandoned.”

“A few diehard people said the architecture in Morningside is about the best Miami has to offer, and we need to do something.” Photo courtesy of Felipe Azenha / Miami UrbanistYoung people weren’t moving into the houses, which still needed daily maintenance, “so it doesn’t take long for things to go south fairly dramatically,” adds Meadows. “A few diehard people said that the architecture in Morningside is about the best Miami has to offer, and we need to do something.”

One of the residents who did something was Elvis Cruz. He tells the BT that in 1981 he saw a historic preservation documentary on WPBT-TV, then marched down to the city’s planning department to kick up some dust. But they’d beaten him to the punch.

“Oh, what a coincidence, we just hired someone to be a historic preservationist. She’s right down the hall. Her name is Sarah Eaton,” he remembers being told. “So I went down the hall and met Sarah Eaton.”

With her guidance, Cruz found other like-minded residents, and they began the long process that culminated on December 20, 1984

“Every historic district, when first proposed, meets with skepticism and resistance, going all the way back to the Art Deco district,” says Cruz. “Huge resistance, and now you look at that, and it’s the best thing that ever happened to Miami Beach.”

He feels the same about Morningside, where he still lives and conducts historic tours. To commemorate the anniversary, he’ll be leading a small walking tour of the area at 11:00 a.m. December 20. While the tour is mostly for Morningside residents, there are a few “space-available” openings for the general public. To request a space or inquire about future tours, e-mail him at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

 

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